The Broken Congress: How Polish Culture Went Up Against Martial Law
On 13th December 1981, a meeting of the Congress of Polish Culture – an independent cultural initiative organised by the Solidarity movement – was unexpectedly suspended on its third and final day. The political circumstances of its beginnings and its enforced demise has made the 1981 congress a symbol of the intellectual, social and economic struggle of the Polish people and their cultural life for decades following.
The Congress of Polish Culture
The Congress of Polish Culture was launched as an independent initiative, without the permission or the involvement of the communist regime. Its ultimate aim was to kindle the cultural rebuilding of the nation based upon the ideals of Solidarity. It was a manifestation of the nation's striving towards freedom in a spiritual, intellectual and political sense.
Ultimately, the congress proved to be spontaneous, heartfelt demonstration of the distance between the creative elites and the nation's leaders, a break in the totalitarian system, of the official culture that had been imposed by the government. It was a demonstration against the party's ideological politics. It was an attempt to negate the overwhelming propaganda and attempt to approach the truth.
This courageous initiative started back in September 1980, soon after the signing of the historic August Agreement at the Gdańsk Shipyard between the communist authorities and the Solidarity opposition. The Artistic and Academic Associations' Consultative Committee was then established, which in turn appointed an organising committee, headed by the art historian Jan Białostocki.
Other members of the committee included such prominent cultural and intellectual figures as: Kazimierz Dejmek, Aleksander Gieysztor, Stefan Gierowski, Józef Gierowski, Konrad Górski, Władysław Hasior, Gustaw Holoubek, Tadeusz Kantor, Antonina Kłosowska, Witold Lutosławski, Karol Małcużyński, Stefan Nowak, Helena Syrkusowa, Klemens Szaniawski, Jan Józef Szczepański, Krzysztof Penderecki, Jacek Woźniakowski and Stefan Żółkiewski.
The orchestra aboard the Titanic
The congress began on Friday, 11th December and was slated to last three days. Participants gathered at the Dramatyczny Theatre in Warsaw. The meeting was opened by Jan Białostocki, who in his speech emphasised the great credit that was due to the Gdańsk shipyard workers for shifting the mindset of the Polish public, and thus influencing the thinking of Polish artists:
The breakthrough that Poland experienced in August 1980 was the work of labourers. (...) What happened during the days and weeks of that watershed time was directly inspirational to our creative and cultural circles. It was quite simply an unprecedented phenomenon.
The morning session of the first day was chaired by Aleksander Gieysztor (historian), the afternoon session by Gustaw Holoubek (actor). The next day, the morning session was led by Kazimierz Dejmek (theatre director, actor and politician), with Karol Małcuzyński (journalist, publicist and politician) taking over in the afternoon.
The first speaker at the congress was the writer Jan Józef Szczepański:
Someone told me that the Congress of Polish Culture would resemble a concert by the orchestra aboard the Titanic. This very pessimistic comparison does have certain bit of likelihood to it.
Speaking these words on 11th December, Szczepański had no idea how close he was to the truth. Yet despite being forced to shut down early, the historic gathering, or at least the first two days thereof, served as an opportunity to openly articulate numerous concerns with the failing political system. Szczepański said:
The current congress, in contrast to a number of previous similar ones is not a ritual or a facade, serves no political game, does not pretend to be anything, and does not try to hide anything.
Moving towards the truth
The congress became a manifestation of the gap between the Polish creative elite and the political system at that time. Its main purpose was to reject the notion that society should be dependent upon the cultural policy, imposed doctrine and ideology of the ruling authorities (the Polish United Workers' Party – PZPR). Rather, cultural pluralism and, in the words of Szczepański, ‘moving towards the truth’ were concepts that resurfaced throughout the various speeches made at the congress.
On the first day, congress attendees listened to a recorded speech given by émigré poet Czesław Miłosz. Subsequent speakers expressed similar views on the current condition of Polish culture and society. The literary critic Andrzej Kijowski sought an analogy for it in a bygone historical era: ‘The current state of Polish customs and Polish way of thinking resembles those in Saxon times’. This comparison was contested a day later by the writer Andrzej Szczypiorski, who noted that ‘these are not Saxon times, for the simple reason that these days it is not possible in today's Poland to eat, drink and loosen one's belt’.
On the other hand, in reference to the shipyard events of the previous year, the literary critic Maria Janion saw a ‘modified version of certain aspects of the civic culture of the interwar period’. In her view:
A strange poetic microclimate has arisen, as the shipyard has become a distinct symbolic locale, a redoubt that has symbolically renewed the romanticism of Polish culture.
Just as the situation in the country was becoming increasingly disturbing, the atmosphere at the congress gathering was also thickening. Some accusations were raised even against the intelligentsia itself. On the second day of the congress, film director Andrzej Wajda said:
Yesterday, when an apocalyptic image of the losses and wasted opportunities of Polish culture was being presented here, I thought to myself that this image was very much the creation of Polish intellectuals, the Polish intelligentsia. After all, it was not a labourer who wrote the Cantata on Stalin, and it was not a labourer who designed the Palace of Culture or falsified the encyclopedia.
The congress has been dissolved
The speakers slated to appear on Sunday, 13th December, the third day of the congress, included Gustaw Holoubek, Aleksander Gieysztor, Andrzej Tyszka, Ryszard Manteuffel, Stefan Nowak and Klemens Szaniawski. However, the gathering was not held. Art historian Maria Poprzęcka wrote up her account of the events:
When the members arrived at the theatre on that sunny, frosty morning they encountered a locked door, through which uniformed and plainclothes officers could be seen. A handwritten note stated that, under a decision made by the Mayor of the Capital City of Warsaw, the congress had been dissolved. However, Prof. Białostocki, who had had a morning conversation with the Minister of Culture, Józef Tejchma, reiterated his reassurances that the congress had not been dissolved, only that its meeting had been suspended due to Martial Law being imposed in the country.
At this time many of the congress members headed to the All Saints’ Church on Grzybowski Square. A telegram from Pope John Paul II addressed to the congress members was read out during mass, followed by the actor Andrzej Łapicki reading a statement that the writer Kazimierz Dziewanowski and historian Aleksander Gieysztor had written in the sacristy, demanding the release of the arrested intellectuals Klemens Szaniawski, Władyslaw Bartoszewski, Jerzy Jedlicki and Andrzej Szczypiorski. The goals of those gathered in the church strayed from lofty intellectual ideals to practical ways to help those artists and writers who had been victims of a mass internment.
The poet Artur Międzyrzecki later recorded his impressions of this memorable mass in his journal:
This silent scene bathed in the winter light resembles a [Artur] Grottger painting. A still, double row of clergymen in the background, on the right the arrested men's wives facing an altar visible through the door, in the center Andrzej Łapicki lost in thought, to the left [Aleksander] Gieysztor sits on a church pew, on the hand-rest scribbling a statement about the suspension of the congress and the detention of four writers.
Many people in the creative and intellectual spheres had been arrested - artists, writers, journalists - along with members of the Solidarity labour movement. All in all, close to 10,000 people had been victims of the government's internment activities. Creative and trade associations were all eliminated. Those who managed to find a way out of the country, such as writer Janusz Głowacki, literary critic Zdzisław Najder and musician Jacek Kaczmarski found it impossible to return for almost a decade. For those who remained, such as Tadeusz Konwicki, the limits imposed by Martial Law and its impact on the individual and society as a whole were the basis of dark, troubling works of fiction and non-fiction.
Even though the congress was officially suspended, its members continued to operate in new circumstances and with new goals. The Church of St. Anne on Krakowskie Przedmieście became the new meeting place of intellectuals, and their main task was to organise help for internees and their families.
Source: Maria Poprzęcka, "Przerwane obrady: Profesor Jan Białostocki jako przewodniczący Kongresu Kultury Polskiej w 1981 roku" [Interrupted Proceedings: Professor Jan Białostocki as the Chairman of the Congress of Polish Culture in 1981] in: Ars longa – Prace dedykowane pamięci profesora Jana Białostockiego. [Ars longa – Works dedicated to the memory of Professor Jan Białostocki], Ars Regia, Warsaw, 1999, Lawina i kamienie: Pisarze wobec komunizmu ["Avalanche and Stones: Writers Faced by Communism"] by Anna Bikont and Joanna Szczęsna