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After six years of German occupation the Poles were prepared to put up with almost anything. The workers wanted a system which recognized their needs, the peasants wanted land, the young intelligentsia wanted a fresh start, and everyone wanted peace and bread. The new regime needed to deliver only a modicum of these in order to ensure broad-based support. Its failure to deliver anything but incompetence, venality and repression over the next forty years is puzzling to anyone not acquainted with the workings of Soviet-style socialism.
While they had few illusion about the Soviet Union and its methods, people were eager to rebuild the devastated country, and ready to shed their prejudices and private interests. At the same time, many never reconciled themselves in any way to what had happened (West betrayal at the Yalta and Potsdam conferences). The majority of those stranded in the West at the end of the war chose not to return, and the wisdom of their choice soon became apparent. The security services, which received its order direct from Moscow, thrust its tentacles into every corner and crevices, gradually spreading fear throughout society as it became clear that there was no such thing as an innocent person. The communist Party directed also from Moscow, could not maintain its rule without the security services and its terror. Party was mostly made up of the bureaucrats of one sort or another, and being a Party member became virtually synonymous with being a functionary. A vast privileged class sprang up, a nomenklatura on the Russian model, living a life very different from that of their ordinary compatriots.
Boleslaw Bierut Wladyslaw Gomolka
Yet in spite of the fact that this self-perpetuating oligarchy had a huge
army and even larger security services at its disposal, it could not do entirely
as it pleased, for it was dealing with a nation whose most learned intellectuals
and simplest peasants alike worshipped democracy and legality. They also
worshipped God. This was an anomaly in a marxist state, and it baffled and
irritated the communists who believed that indoctrination and persecution would
eventually alter it. Very soon they had to concede that it would not. The Church
came through the war morally enhanced by its uncompromising stand against the
Germans. Thousand of priests had been sent to concentration camps or shot, and
no trace of collaboration tainted the hierarchy. This made it all the more
difficult for the new regime to persecute it. But still the Church lands were
nationalized and its charitable institutions taken over by the state. Religious
instruction was forbidden in schools and chaplains were banned from army,
prisons and hospitals. Many priest were imprisoned and condemned to
The Party was trying to keep both peasants and workers out of politics. The peasants were forced into collective farms on the Russian model and remaining private peasant farms were squeezed by the imposition of compulsory quotas which they had to deliver at fixed prices usually below the cost of production. The postwar industrialization was also drawing a lot of people from the countryside into the towns but much of it defied common sense. New factories were build hundreds of miles away from existing industrial centers, coalfields or manpower pools. The planners had a weakness for vast projects, great steelworks that would be seen and smelt for mile around, like so many monuments to the socialist achievement. The pattern of Poland's industrialization was also dictated by the Soviet Union, which wanted the economies of its satellites to complement its own. It was Soviet demands too that Poland had to maintain a huge army and police apparatus, and to pay the keep of the Russian armies stationed in Poland. Finally, Poland was bound by trade treaties which crippled the economy. In the education, the textbooks, particularly on history, were rewritten and a plethora of new subjects, mostly dealing with Marxism or Russian communism, found its way on to the curriculum. Writers, musicians, painters and sculptors had to glorify the Party and the USSR. When after Stalin death in 1953, the political life was blown open, even senior Party members were astonished to hear to what extent every aspect of life had been dictated by Moscow. A lot of people were released from prison and the security services lowered their profile. Party admitted that 'mistakes' had been made and in 1956 Nikita Khrushchev made his famous speech to the Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union denouncing Stalin's rule. In Poland another 70,000 political prisoners were release and some security men were arrested, but unfortunately this did not herald radical change. The people demonstrated for more freedom and the authorities responded by sending in tanks and reactionaries within the Party argued that such outbreaks were the inevitable consequences of relaxing discipline. The Russian troops stationed in Poland began to march on Warsaw but finally the Polish government had contain the situation, and the Soviet units returned to base. The Party declared that it will lead Poland on a new road to Socialism with a human face and a Polish costume, but the changes were largely cosmetic. The Poles understood that ether the country was ruled by the Polish communist party or it would be taken over directly by the Soviet Union.
Faced with the injustice, falsehood and drabness of socialist reality, people of all classes sought solace, truth and beauty in the Catholic Faith. After 1956, the university once more became centers of learning and discussion. Contact with the outside world meant that those brought up under Stalin were now able to see that there were options. People began to think aloud once more but in 1968 the Warsaw university student demonstration, once more, was dispersed with unwarranted brutality by the police and hundreds of students were arrested. As wages slumped and working conditions declined, absenteeism and careless work crippled production. The private sector in agriculture was starved of investment. The cost of living had risen, while wages lagged far behind and in 1970 the workers in Gdansk went on strike and marched in protest to the local Party headquarters. The police opened fire on them. Similar confrontations took place in Gdynia, Elblag and in Szczecin and the tanks moved in. The numbers of death reached into hundreds.
The Party admitted that this was 'a painful reminder that the Party must
never lose touch with the working class and the nation'. But the next ten years
were to transform this lack of contact into an unbridgeable chasm. The plans for
an 'economic leap forward' were financed by massive borrowing from the West
which was to be repaid through the improved extraction of raw materials and the
export of goods produced in new factories built with foreign capital and money
poured in from Western banks only happy to lend. Production rose sharply, and
the Polish economy began to grow rapidly. The standard of living went up, and
its cost went down. It was not long before cracks began to appear. The new
factories products were difficult to sell in the West and the foreign debt
spiraled. The only answer was to increase export of coal and other raw
materials, and to divert consumer goods originally intended for the home market
to export. The consequences were felt immediately, and shortage of staple items
grew more and more frequent. When in 1976, the prices of food were raised, the
strikes broke out all over the country and soon turned to rioting. And once
again the police went into action and hundreds of workers were arrested and
sentenced to prison. The crisis brought to the surface that the economic
progress was based on an assumption of technical competence of the Party cadres,
but the reality was opposite and even more, the corruption came in on the tail
of incompetence. The principle of negative selection that attracted society's
dross into the Party was avenging itself. In the same time Polish capital and
personnel were committed to Soviet development projects; Polish goods produced
from dollar investments were sold on for useless rubles; and the level of
'fraternal aid' to 'liberation movements' in the third world rose sharply. On
the other hand the society had grown more assertive and politically more mature.
Since the war Polish culture has evolved in a great semaphoric concert of individual scattered throughout the world, but in 1970s the droves of young Poles provided access to information of every sort. The opportunity to see other systems in operation gave people brought up under a totalitarian regime a valuable scale of comparison in terms of the civil and political rights they might feel due to them. This was a very different society that was confronting the Party. It was not conditioned to endure and resist silently. It was well informed and no longer believed a word of communist government propaganda, it knew that a different sort of life was possible, and it knew that the rest of Europe was once more aware of its plight. Finally the election of the Pole as a Pope John Paul II was not only a solace in polish misery, as well as a great national honor, it was also the final breach in the wall behind which Poles had been kept since 1945. The hapless Party was foundering in the morass of its economic 'miracle' and once again made the mistake of balancing the books by drastic rises in the price of food. A rash of strikes broke out in response, but this time their tenor and their strategy were entirely new. This was the beginning of the end of communism era.
In 1980 the striking workers of Gdansk Shipyard leaded by Lech Walesa
occupied the shipyard and demanded that representatives of the government come
to listen to a whole list of demands. Enterprises all over the country staged
similar sit-ins, and an Interfactory Strike Committee was formed to coordinate
the movement. The government quickly gauged the strength and determination of
the movement and signed an agreement with the workers. This was a whole package
involving the establishment of free trade unions, the freedom of information,
access to the media and civil rights. It was the first authentic workers
revolution in European history. It was appropriate that the new trade union
should take the name of Solidarity, since it was this very filing between all
segments of the nation that gave it such strength. Soon the various unions
affiliated to Solidarity had over ten million members, which in a population of
just over 35 million, represented virtually everyone of working age. Over the
next fifteen months Polish society took a warm bath in its own values and the
sense of human dignity reentered people's dealing with each other. Every facet
of life was affected by the novel sense of freedom and renewal and people
stopped looking over their shoulders. On the other hand, the harvest of Party
economic policy was a bitter one. The foreign debt reached giddy heights while
the machinery bought with borrowed currency ether fell to pieces or ground to
halt for lack of spare parts. The Party had not only lost control, it had fallen
The Soviet Union had tolerated what was happening only because it could not do otherwise. It was diplomatically isolated as a result of its invasion of Afghanistan, and economically dependent on the West, which for once, seemed prepared to make more than pious noises. But one thing the Soviet Union could under no circumstances countenance, however, was any idea of the dismantling of its apparat in Poland. It was when the apparat's monopoly of power came into question that the Soviet Union felt compelled to act. In December 1981 general Wojciech Jaruzeski, a man blindly faithful to Moscow, in a complex military operation carried out with surprising efficiency, arrested virtually the entire Solidarity leadership. Thousand of people were dragged from their beds and ferried through the freezing night to prisons, while tanks patrolled the snow covered streets. Communications were cut and a 'State of War' was declared. The workers were unprepared, and there was little resistance. Although a few Solidarity leaders remained in hiding and mounted a campaign of underground opposition, the movement was ostensibly crushed. Jaruzelski had certainly managed to bring Poland back to Moscow's heel with a minimum of bloodshed. But he was less successful in his attempts at 'normalizing' the situation. The United States protested in the strongest terms and imposed stringent trade sanctions. Other Western countries followed suit. This hit already chaotic economy and Jaruzelski's attempts at reviving it very hard. The underground leadership of Solidarity insisted that economic progress could only be achieved in partnership with itself, and regularly appealed to the authorities to open negotiations, but the General refused. People were harassed by the police, bullied, beaten up and even murdered. On the other hand most of those detained, including Walesa, were released in 1983, and a general amnesty was announced. In the same time, Gorbachov's proposed reforms in the Soviet Union and pandering to Western opinion robbed Jaruzelski of the certainty that he could count on Soviet force. Although still outlawed, Solidarity was reasserting its influence and operated almost openly. Many of the Party die-hards were keen on a fresh clampdown and on opposite side the volume of public protest was rising steadily. Finally in 1988 the 'round table' talks between government and Solidarity were announced and a new government, with a few independent figures, was formed.
The talks did finally begin in February 1989, and it soon became clear that the talks were really about the elimination of the Party's influence from every domain of public and private life. The opposition negotiators however trod warily, allowing generous terms for the capitulation of the nomenklatura, because nobody could be sure how Gorbachov would react to fundamental change in Poland, the cornerstone of Soviet military system. The talks ended in a spirit of harmonious agreement that seemed hard to believe. Solidarity recovered its legal status, the right of free association and freedom of speech were guaranteed, as was the independence of the judiciary. Most important of all, democratic elections to new bicameral parliament were announced. The party however reserved 65% of the seats in the lower house for its own members, but the next elections, to be held in 1993, were to be entirely free.
In 1944 Stalin himself had declared that trying to establish communism in Poland was like fitting a saddle to a cow. It was a nonsense from the start, and it was bound to fail. The Poles achieved their ends without provoking dangerous reactions, and the way they acted throughout was a tribute to the political maturity of the population as a whole.
Excerpts from the book "The Polish Way" by Adam Zamojski
(John Murray-Publishers Ltd. London 1987)