Fighting Communist Oppression in the People’s Republic of Poland

1956 - 1980

Although soon to be extinguished, optimism was in the air in Poland in 1956.

Poland appeared to be on the road to socialism with a human face, following Joseph Stalin’s death in 1953, Władysław Gomułka’s appointment as an apparently more reformist head of the communist ruling Party (the Central Committee of the Polish United Workers’ Party a.k.a. KC PZPR), and having avoided the assault of the Soviet Army (suffered by brave Hungary).

The demonstration of workers’ power on the streets of Poznań – in the so-called Polish October (or Polish Thaw of 1956) – started a sequence of calendar events, marking the growth of opposition to Party-state power. March of 1968 witnessed the disgraceful brutal beatings of demonstrating students, and later the expulsion of fifteen thousand – largely Jewish – citizens from all walks of life, amongst them 500 academics. The Prague Spring of 1968 also provided a salutary lesson – again of what could happen if matters slipped out of Party control. Thus December 1970 once again saw the explosion of workers’ anger – ostensibly because of meat price rises – a straw that broke the camel’s back of growing widespread discontent within society. Bloody suppression followed without the ‘fraternal assistance’ of comrades from the east – a constant concern for both workers and indeed the party itself, who preferred to use it as a background threat. A re-shuffling of Party seats saw Edward Gierek, the country’s leader between 1970 and 1980, offer a renewed vision of socialist consumption – cars, homes, electronic goods. The propaganda of success was punctured in June 1976 – again following food price rises – which saw the so-called ‘paths to health’ in which striking workers were brutally beaten by the police with batons as they ran between their ranks. The subsequent attempts at extracting justice saw the coming together of workers and intellectuals in the founding of KOR –The Committee for the Defense of Workers in September 1976 – and other support organisations. The most significant of the latter was the foundation of the Free Trade Union Movement based in Gdańsk in 1978; Gdańsk being where the December 1970 workers’ strikes and their quelling by army and police had taken place, and where Lech Wałęsa had first appeared on the scene, and with the Free Trade Union Movement it now took on its own momentum. Its publication Robotnik, which was critical in providing information to workers about strike action in other factories, drew on Józef Pilsudski’s journal-title of nearly a hundred years earlier. Without a doubt, the election of the Polish Pope Jan Pawel II (John Paul II) in 1978, and his visit to Poland a year later, provided the moral and political impetus to subsequent events. The threat of workers’ power now stalked the corridors of Party-state power. August 1980 was to be the pivotal point of the events foreshadowed by 1956 and delayed until 1989.

Travel to the UK (as well as to Poland) during this period was sporadic. However, those visitors who managed to travel were loaded with literary materials from émigré sources to take home, ably mustered by the Polish Library in London, for example. Radio Free Europe and the BBC World Service provided a running commentary while every now and then a dramatisation of Polish matters might appear in the British mass media and Polish films retained their popularity. Most importantly, the natural turnover of generations saw the appearance of an émigré community who, while paying due respect to their forebears’ legacy, were now British Poles in the main and more concerned by developments in contemporary Poland. Bilingualism of a kind and hybrid identity was the order of the day; although their practice of Polishness was seen as somewhat ersatz by the purists, it was no less real and meaningful to them for all that. Visiting Poland provided an emotional charge which sustained the everyday life of the Polish émigré community in Britain (which calls itself ‘Polonia’).

Text by Professor Jerzy Kolankiewicz