Poland's Walk To Freedom in 13 Iconic Photos
small, Poland's Walk To Freedom
in 13 Iconic Photos, Solidarity, 1982, photo: Chris Niedenthal / Forum, full_solidarnosc_123_forum_770.jpg
Poland’s walk to freedom culminated in the fall of the communist regime, but the road was longer and more arduous than many realise. Culture.pl commemorates this year’s anniversary of the introduction of the martial law by retracing these courageous steps in 10 iconic photographs.
The country's position east of the Iron Curtain was a barrier to the swift reconstruction that many others on the continent saw after World War II. As Western Europe rebuilt and re-established the foundations of economic cooperation, Poland was instead implementing a Soviet-imposed version of socialism – with no market economy, no free media and no chances for opening the sapped country to international exchange.
From the earliest stages of communism, various Polish opposition groups endeavoured to resist this new regime. During the Stalinist period (1945-1956), many of the participants of such movements were sentenced to death and executed. Even after de-Stalinization in 1956, any opposition to the regime was forbidden and threatened with severe sanctions. The communist regime had no mercy – even for recognized war heroes, such as Witold Pilecki. The organiser of a resistance movement in Auschwitz, he was sentenced to death in a staged trial.
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The United Kingdom, France and the United States withdrew their recognition of the Polish Government in-exile. After the blatant ballot rigging in the so-called free parliamentary election in 1947, there seemed little hope that Poland would ever escape Soviet power.
The first mass protests (1956, 1968 & 1970)
Gdynia, 17th December 1970. Gdynia shipyard workers carry the body of Zbigniew Godlewski, shot during the riots, on a door. This photo was taken from a window above the street, from a private apartment, photo: Edmund Peplinski / Forum
By the 1950s, almost all of the opposition leaders had been apprehended, killed or exiled – and life under the communist regime was increasingly intolerable. In 1956, workers in the city of Poznań began to riot and strike. More than 360 tanks were rolled out. Fifty-seven people were killed and nearly 750 arrested. The message to the authorities was clear: the Polish people were ready to lay their lives down.
It was 1968 before the next protest arose. This time, university students organised mass rallies to speak out against strict cultural policies and suffocating censorship. Again, the government used force. Not only did they imprison the leaders of the student movement, but they also used propaganda to convince the public that their actions were inspired by hostile outside forces (i.e. the Israeli government, with the Six-Day War as the backdrop of the conflict).
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In 1970, the protests of the Tricity workers were brutally suppressed. At least 44 people were killed. This time, however, the workers’ revolt sparked significant changes. Władysław Gomułka – the leader of the communist party since 1956 – was replaced by the promising Edward Gierek.
Pope John Paul II comes to Poland (1979)
Gierek managed to achieve considerable popularity thanks to his economic reforms, which noticeably improved the standard of living. For the first time since 1939, some basic consumers good became available and affordable. This economic miracle, however, turned out to be based on mass borrowings from foreign banks.
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The oil crisis of 1973-4 put Poland on the verge of bankruptcy. ‘Consumers’ communism’, built on ramshackle foundations, soon pushed Poland into even deeper dependency on the Soviet Union. Thus, Poles found themselves under stronger political pressure, with even less political freedom than before the 1970s.
Amid this crisis, a Pole, Karol Wojtyła, was elected as the new pope – John Paul II. For the church in Poland, an institution that had supported every pro-democratic and pro-human rights protest, offering shelter to persecuted opposition members, this was the miracle they prayed for.
During John Paul’s II first pastoral trip to Poland, he spoke openly to the masses about human dignity, encouraging them to peacefully oppose every infringement of human rights and limitations on freedom. This meant the world to a people who had spent decades in a country with no freedom of speech. Such words, expressed publicly, with no fear, gave them hope and courage – which would be much needed in the years to come.
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Shipyard strikes (1980)
Lech Wałęsa, the Polish workers' union activist and leader – as well as Poland's future first democratic president – during a speech to the Lenin Shipyard strikers in Gdańsk. 31st August 1980
, photo: © Rue des Archives / AGIP / Forum
The deteriorating economic situation and reluctance of foreign banks to further sponsor the inefficient Polish system forced communist leaders to raise consumer prices. Society, already living in very difficult conditions, reacted immediately. A wave of strikes – starting in the Lenin Shipyard in Gdańsk and followed by occupation strikes in many other factories and mines – paralysed the country’s economy and extorted a reaction from the communist regime.
The communist leaders had only two choices. They could either accept the 21 demands of MKS (the Interfactory Strike Committee led by Wałęsa) or use force again to order repressions on an unpredictable scale. But protest had never had been so widespread, united and well organised. On the 31st of August, Lech Wałęsa and Mieczysław Jagielski, representing the communist party, signed the Gdańsk Agreement.
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The Agreement granted the Polish people the right to take part in free trade unions, established Saturday as a non-working day, increased the minimum wage, increased and extended welfare and pensions. It also announced the abolishment of censorship, as well as the erection of a monument to the victims of the 1970s protests.
Solidarity (Solidarność) (1980-1981)
In September 1980, the Solidarity (Solidarność) trade union was registered as the first legal non-political workers’ union, with Lech Wałęsa as its first leader. Even though the origins of Solidarity were strongly rooted among workers, it soon spread to all other social groups opposing the communist system – from the Catholic Church to the non-communist leftists and intelligentsia.
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At its peak, Solidarity counted more than 9 million members (approximately 25% of Poland’s population at the time). It was the only force able to negotiate with the communist government. As the people’s representative, Solidarity aimed at reinstating civil society and fostering political changes through nonviolent resistance.
Martial Law (13th December 1981)
International as well as domestic circumstances soon proved much worse than what the newly optimistic Poles had imagined. The communist government was completely unable to meet the provisions of the Gdańsk Agreement because of the country’s miserable economy. Debts, multiplied by the oil crisis and inefficient managing of production, caused irreversible damage to the whole of the economic system. Supply shortages, queues and public services malfunctions were becoming unbearable.
Solidarity’s Underground Posters in Lublin
In early spring 1981, a massive warning strike was announced – followed by a mass hunger strike which took place in across the major cities of Poland during the summer. The tension between the unhappy masses and the government had reached a boiling point.
On 13th December, General Wojciech Jaruzelski – the minister of defence and new Communist Party first secretary – declared martial law. Almost all of the recently acquired civic and political rights were suspended. Solidarity leaders were captured and detained. Every demonstration was forcefully and brutally repressed by the state. For example, nine workers were shot during a strike at the Wujek mine. Further regulations on food rationing were imposed.
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Solidarity goes underground (1982)
A demonstration of the Independent Students' Union is suppressed by ZOMO (special political police forces). A secret service undercover agent (holding a camera) aids in the apprehension of a student, photo: Jaroslaw Stachowicz / Forum
During martial law and its aftermath, thousands of Poles emigrated for political or economic reasons. Some of the resistance movement leaders were forced to flee, and many more where detained – but those who stayed carried on fighting. Solidarity transformed from a huge social movement to a cluster of small clandestine groups working on issues such as the distribution of a free press, organisation of anti-communist marches, operation of underground ‘universities’ and overall attempt to unmask the regime’s everyday lies.
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Martial law, conflict between ZOMO and protesters, Warsaw, 3rd May 1982, photo: Chris Niedenthal / Forum
Although martial law was lifted in 1983, the repressions didn’t stop there. Security services worked full-time prosecuting Solidarity members. Many political prisoners were heavily beaten in prisons, blackmailed and threatened. The regime’s agents murdered a leading figure of the Catholic Church – Priest Jerzy Popiełuszko. The country was plunging into apathy, fear and hopelessness.
After Brezhnev’s death, and during the ensuing chaos, it was Mikhail Gorbachev who eventually took over in the Soviet Union. Political and social reforms in the USSR, combined with the wavering Brezhnev doctrine (which was meant to forcefully sustain communism across the Soviet Bloc) made the international situation much more favourable for political changes. Fear of the Soviet Army entering Poland to suppress protests became less of a threat.
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While the hope for a freer political scene had emerged, the standard of living in Poland was lower than ever. All of the old familiar economic issues, indebtedness, empty shelves and absolute lack of essential consumer goods had returned with a vengeance. Meanwhile, the people were so frustrated that none of the mediocre reforms proposed by subsequent prime ministers were sufficient enough to appease social unrest.
In 1988, a new wave of strikes was organised – and there was no chance of holding it back. As soon as the police could forcefully pacify one of the strikes (as with Kraków’s Steelworks), a new one would immediately break out. Soon, almost all of the factories were idle, with the whole seaside paralysed by strikes. The protesters' determination and lack of adequate forces to suppress them, combined with the Soviet Union’s new weakness, led the communist regime to begin negotiations.
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Round Table Talks (1989)
Formal negotiations between the democratic opposition and the regime took place at the Round Table Talks – with 26 representatives of Solidarity and the Workers’ Union, 14 members of communist party, 14 independent experts and two clerics present. Despite the many reforms and freedoms granted (including the reauthorisation of Solidarity), the Round Table led to only a semi-free election – where, for the first time in Poland, after World War II history, all political groups could take part. The main restriction was that 2/3 of the Sejm (the lower chamber of the bicameral parliament) was to be reserved for the communists.
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Semi-free election (1989)
Solidarity’s success surpassed all expectations. The democratic opposition candidates won all 161 possible seats in the Sejm, and 99 out of 100 in the Senate! But the real result was even more revolutionary: The communist regime turned out to have no legitimacy to stay in power. The subsequent months saw its desperate attempts to maintain control, but eventually, thanks to Solidarity refusing any unfair compromise, it failed to establish a new government. Then, with the votes of Solidarity parliament members, as well as the votes of two communist satellite-parties, the Sejm elected Tadeusz Mazowiecki as the first non-communist prime minister of Poland since 1945.
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Mazowiecki’s government was sworn in on 13th September 1989. Immediately, it began fighting the dramatic deficits in every last part of administration and everyday life, as well as transforming the country into a free market economy. The political transformation turned out to be a critically difficult task, and even now, Poles are divided in a heated debate about its course.
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What is certain, however, is that the peaceful Polish revolution set off the process known to historians as the Revolutions of 1989. In November 1989, the Berlin Wall fell, Hungary sat down to its own round table talks and the Czech Republic underwent the Velvet Revolution. Non-violent means dismantled the Soviet Bloc, ended the Cold War and introduced a brand-new chapter of European history.
Poland under communism
Written by Wojciech Oleksiak, 11 Dec 2014