This week marks 30 years since the rule of martial law was imposed in Poland. It was enforced from December 13th 1981 to July 22nd 1983, and even with the passing of a few decades, it is still a subject evoking strong feelings and emotions. It also does not help that the primary player of that period, General Wojciech Jaruzelski, is still alive and is one of the remaining symbols of communism in Poland, having been the Polish Prime Minister from 1981 to 1985 and head of state from 1985 to 1990.
To summarise the martial law period in Poland for those that might be unfamiliar with it, it was as follows. Pro-democracy movements such as Solidarność were gaining momentum throughout 1980 and 1981. The communist leaders initially wanted to show leniency and be open to some discussion with the agitators; however as time went by, they began to realise that their authority was being challenged. Fear grew that the disruptions would develop into something more revolutionary such as had happened in Budapest in 1956 or in Prague in 1968. In both instances, Soviet military intervention had been used to quell efforts at democratising the countries. In both examples, the Warsaw Pact had been invoked to justify sending in the troops. In 1980 and 1981, the Polish leaders including General Jaruzelski began negotiations with Moscow to use the same option to force authority once more in Poland.
However, it turned out the Soviets were unwilling (for the first time) to step in and it meant the Polish leaders had to take their own action. A ‘state of war’ (stan wojenny) was declared. While there was no actual war or external threat, the authorities used the premise of escalating internal threats as a reason to implement martial rule. The following speech made by Jaruzelski on December 13th 1981 shows him trying to pull the patriotic heart-strings of the public:
“The atmosphere of conflicts, misunderstanding, hatred causes moral degradation, surpasses the limits of toleration. Strikes, the readiness to strike, actions of protest have become a norm of life. Even school youth are being drawn into this. Yesterday evening, many public buildings remained seized. The cries are voiced to physical reprisals with the ‘reds’, with people who have different opinions.
The cases of terror, threats and moral vvendetta, of even direct violence are on the rise. A wave of impudent crimes, robberies and burglaries is running across the country. The underground business sharks’ fortunes, already reaching millions, are growing. Chaos and demoralization have reached the magnitude of a catastrophe. People have reached the limit of psychological toleration. Many people are struck by despair. Not only days, but hours as well are bringing forth the all-national disaster.” He then finished by reciting the Polish national anthem.
Martial rule imposed tough times on the Polish people. Demonstrators were summarily arrested without charge, pro-democracy groups were banned, curfews imposed and communications disrupted by telephone lines being cut and post being censored. As some Polish people tried to rebel against the system, it caused further crackdowns. Estimates of over 100 deaths in the time of martial law have been suggested. Even for those that did not rebel and suffer directly, there were detrimental effects for all involved, through food rationing, forcing 6 day working weeks, military courts and a ‘verification’ system used to ensure people were not anti-authoritarian.
However, it seems that this could be seen as the nadir of the Communist period in Poland – a sort of ‘darkest moment just before the dawn’ leading to the sunlight of democracy. Surviving such a period would have given confirmation to those groups such as Solidarność that they were on the right path. The shadow of the Soviet Union was also lessening, so it could be seen that in the battle for Polands future, it would be ‘good’ Poles against ‘bad’ Poles in a battle for hearts and minds without waiting to see when the troops from Moscow would land to support the government. It’s also possible that the Polish people themselves would have had more belief in themselves to be the change they wanted to see. If this was the worst that the government could throw at them, then why can’t democracy be forced? The art of kombinować would have ensured that people survived (maybe even thrived) despite difficulties.
Thus, it should be a case that the 30th anniversary of martial rule should be celebrated as a trigger for something more for Poland, rather than as a symbol of the worst of communist times.