Poland’s walk to freedom was crowned by the fall of communism, but the road was longer and much more arduous than people realise. Culture.pl commemorates this year’s anniversary of the introduction of the martial law by retracing these courageous steps with 13 iconic photographs.
Falling East of the Iron Curtain prevented Poland from taking part in the fast reconstruction of Europe after World War II. While Western European countries had their hands full rebuilding and establishing the foundations of economic cooperation, Poland was implementing a Soviet-imposed version of socialism with no market economy, no free media and no chances for opening the exhausted country to international exchange. Since the very beginning of the Communist period various groups of opposition attempted to fight this new regime.
During the Stalinist period (1945-1956) many of them were sentenced to death and executed but, even after de-Stalinization in 1956, any opposition to the regime was forbidden and threatened with the severest sanctions. The communist regime had no mercy, even for the most recognized war heroes such as Witold Pilecki, organiser of a resistance movement in Auschwitz, who was sentenced to death in a staged trial.
After the UK, France and the USA withdrew their recognition of the Polish Government in-exile and after the blatant ballot rigging in the so-called free parliamentary election in 1947, Poland seemed to have little hope of ever escaping Soviet power.
1956, 1968, 1970: First Mass Protests
Even though by 1950s almost all of the opposition leaders had been apprehended, killed or exiled, people could not passively accept the Communist regime. In 1956, workers in Poznań started rioting and striking. Over 360 tanks were used, 57 people were killed and almost 750 arrested. The message sent to the authorities was clear: people were ready to lay their life down.
It wasn’t until 1968 that the next protest arose. This time, university students organised mass rallies to protest against the cultural policies and the suffocating censorship. Again, the government used force, and not only imprisoned the leaders of the students’ movement but also used propaganda to convince crowds that the students’ action were inspired by hostile Western forces (i.e. Israeli, because of the Six-day War being the background of the conflict).
In 1970 protests of the Tricity workers were brutally pacified (at least 44 people were killed) but this time the workers’ revolt brought on significant changes. Władysław Gomułka – communist party leader since 1956 – was replaced by the promising Edward Gierek.
1979: John Paul II Comes to Poland
Gierek managed to achieve considerable popularity thanks to his economic reforms that noticeably improved living standards. For the first time since 1939 some basic consumers goods were available and affordable. Meanwhile nothing was changing on the political scene, censorship was ubiquitous and Gierek’s economic miracle soon turned out to be based on mass borrowings from foreign banks. The oil crisis in 1973-4 put Poland on the verge of bankruptcy. ‘Consumers’ communism’, built on ramshackle foundations, soon pushed Poland into even deeper dependency of Soviet Union, thus under stronger political tension and even less political freedom than before 1970s.
In the middle of 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, and who had offered shelter to persecuted opposition members, it was the miracle they had been praying for. During John Paul’s II first pastoral trip to Poland he openly spoke to the masses about human dignity, encouraged them to peacefully oppose every infringement of human rights and limitations on freedom. This meant the world to a people having just spent decades in a country with no freedom of speech. Such words, expressed publicly, with no fear, gave them hope and courage, much needed in the years to come.
1980: Shipyard Strikes
The deteriorating economic situation and foreign banks’ reluctance to further sponsor of the inefficient Polish system forced communist leaders to raise consumer prices. Society, already living in very difficult conditions, reacted immediately. A wave of strikes, started in the Lenin Shipyard in Gdańsk and then followed by occupation strikes in many other factories and mines, paralysed the country’s economy and extorted a reaction from the Communist regime.
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 and order repressions on an unpredictable scale. Because 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 Agreements. The Agreements granted 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, and announced the abolishment of censorship as well as the erection of a monument the victims of the 1970s protests.
1980-1981: Solidarity / Solidarność
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 in workers’ society it soon spread to all other social groups opposing the communist system; from the Catholic Church to non-communist leftists and intelligentsia. At its peak, Solidarity had over 9 million members (approx. 25% of the Poland’s population) and was the only force able to negotiate with the communist government. Despite being the people’s representative, Solidarność aimed at reinstating civil society and fostering political changes via nonviolent resistance.
December 13th, 1981: Martial Law.
International as well as domestic circumstances soon showed to be much worse than what the newly optimistic Poles thought. 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 damages to the whole of the economic system. Supply shortages, queues and public service malfunction became unbearable.
In early spring 1981 a massive warning strike was announced and was followed by peaceful hunger strikes which took place in all the major cities of Poland during summer. The tension between unhappy masses and the government reached the boiling point.
On December 13th, general Wojciech Jaruzelski – Minister of Defence and new Communist Party’s 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 9 workers were shot at a strike of the Wujek mine) and further regulations on food rationing were imposed. Solidarity was delegalized. Dreams of freedom were lost, or at least frozen for an unknown amount of time.
1982: Solidarity Goes Underground
During the 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 distributing free press, organising anti-communist marches, underground ‘universities’ and overall trying to unmask the regime’s everyday lies.
Even though the martial law was lifted in 1983 the repressions didn’t stop. Security services worked full-time on 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 soon plunged 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 meant to forcefully sustain communism in all countries of the Soviet Bloc) made the international situation much more favourable for political changes. Fear of the Soviet Army entering Poland to supress protests became less of a threat.
While hope for a freer political scene had emerged, living standards in Poland were lower than ever. All economic issues, indebtedness, empty shelves, absolute lack of essential consumer goods, returned with a vengeance. Meanwhile, society was so frustrated that none of the mediocre reforms proposed by subsequent PMs were sufficient to appease social unrests.
In 1988 a new wave of strikes was organised, and there was no holding it back. Even if the police forcefully pacified one of the strikes (like in Kraków’s Steelworks) a new one immediately broke out. Soon almost all of the factories were idle, with the whole seaside paralysed by strikes. Given the determination of strikers and insufficient forces to pacify them, in combination with the Soviet Union’s new weakness, the Communist regime decided to begin negotiations.
1989: Round Table Talks
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. Despite many reforms and freedoms granted (inter alia legalizing Solidarity again), the Round Table decided to organise 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 (lower chamber of bicameral parliament) was to be reserved for communists.
1989: Semi-free Election
Solidarity’s success surpassed all expectations. Democratic opposition candidates won 161 places in the Sejm out of the 161 possible, and 99 out of a 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 the Communists trying desperately to hold on to power but eventually, thanks to Solidarity refusing any unfair compromise, 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.
Mazowiecki’s government was sworn in on September 13th 1989 and immediately started fighting the dramatic deficits in every little part of administration and everyday life, as well as transforming the country into a free market economy. Political transformation turned out to be a critically difficult task and even now Poles are divided in a heated debate about its course.
What is however certain 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 Europe to a brand new chapter of its history.
Learn more about communist history of Poland: