On December 13, 1981, in a televised speech addressed to the entire nation, General Wojciech Jaruzelski announced the introduction of martial law in Poland in an attempt to throttle political opposition, embodied by the Solidarity Movement.
Since the 1970s, communist Poland had been in a deep economic recession. As expenditures increased and debts accumulated, the living standards began to sharply decline, essential goods started to be heavily rationed and power outages became commonplace. By 1980, the country’s debt accounted to over US$23 billion, then almost half of Poland’s nominal GDP.
In July 1980, Edward Gierek‘s government’s decision to raise prices while slowing the growth of wages sparked two months of social unrest, marred by a wave of strikes and factory occupations.
The Gdańsk agreement and Solidarity
At the Lenin Shipyard in Gdańsk, the firing of Anna Walentynowicz, a popular crane operator and activist, galvanized the outraged workers who began their strike, led by Lech Wałęsa, a 35-year-old electrician at the yard who had been fired four years earlier.
The management gave in very quickly on several points, but the strikers wanted more, in particular the legalization of independent trade unions. And the strike quickly took on a political dimension with the arrival on site of dissident intellectuals.
While supporters pressed themselves against the closed gates of the shipyard, bearing food and offering moral support, holy images lined the outer walls of the industrial site and masses were held in support of the strike across the country. Thanks to popular support, as well as to international support and media coverage, the Gdańsk workers held out until the government gave in to their demands.
In August, deputy prime minister Mieczysław Jagielski headed a government delegation to Gdańsk to negotiate. The talks were broadcast to the shipyard by loudspeakers, and on August 31, Wałęsa declared the end of the strike on national television after representatives of the workers and the government signed an agreement, which came to be known as the Gdańsk agreement.
The historic deal ratified many of the workers’ demands, including the right to strike, and enabled the creation of Solidarity (Solidarność), the Soviet bloc’s first independent trade union, which attracted an assorted membership of different citizens, managing to unite 10 million members – almost four times as many as the ruling communist party.
Under pressure from the Soviet Union, Edward Gierek was immediatly dismissed from his office, expelled from the Polish United Workers’ Party and falsely charged with corruption. After the short tenure of Stanisław Kania, Minister of Defence Wojciech Jaruzelski was chosen as the country’s new First Secretary in February 1981.
But as the economic situation kept deteriorating, the existence of Solidarity and the political liberties that the movement brought paralyzed the authoritarian state and the state-controlled economy, and the Kremlin became discontented with the perceived lack of progress made by Jaruzelski in crushing the “counterrevolution” in Poland.
On the morning of December 13, millions of Poles awoke to find that the entire country had been placed under a state of martial law. Appearing on television, Jaruzelski declared that his intention was to maintain “legal balance of the country, to create guarantees that give a chance to restore order and discipline” and “save the country from collapse”, claiming that the country was on the verge of economic and civil breakdown and alleging a danger of Soviet intervention.
As Jaruzelski began a crack-down on Solidarity, tens of thousands of union activists were arrested, including Wałęsa. The “Military Council of National Salvation” initially intended to remold Solidarity into a compliant union, stripped of its intelligentsia advisers and compatible with the state socialist system. But the failure to incite most ranking Solidarity leaders to collaborate resulted in the government adopting the goal of total liquidation of the union movement. In October 1982, the military junta officially banned Solidarity.
Martial law in Poland was formally lifted in July 1983, though many heightened controls on civil liberties and political life, as well as food rationing, remained in place throughout the mid-to-late 1980s. As a consequence of economic hardship and political repression, an exodus of Poles saw 700,000 emigrate to the West between 1981 and 1989.
The fall of Communist Poland
Solidarity survived as a small underground organization, supported by various international institutions, from the Catholic Church to the CIA, before being legalised as the communist bloc crumbled.
Indeed, despite the Polish authorities’ best effort to crack down on trade unionism, the movement had gained too much momentum and it soon became impossible to hold off change anymore. And by 1988, with economic malaise and runaway inflation depressing Polish living standards and deepening public anger and frustration, the government began serious talks with the opposition.
In September 1988, following a new wave of strikes, a secret meeting was held which included Lech Wałęsa and Minister of Internal Affairs Czesław Kiszczak, during which the two parties agreed to hold the so-called Round Table talks in the near future to plan out the course of action to be undertaken in the country. A list was drawn up of members of the main negotiating teams.
With Wałęsa leading the non-governmental side of the negotiations, the meetings resulted in legalization of the Solidarity movement and enabled partially free elections in June 1989, during which Solidarity persuaded the Communists’ two satellite parties to switch their support to Solidarity, all but forcing General Jaruzelski to appoint a Solidarity member as Prime Minister.
Lech Wałęsa picked the former editor-in-chief of the Tygodnik Solidarność magazine, Tadeusz Mazowiecki, to lead the coming administration. Wałęsa then decided to run for the newly re-established office of president and became Poland’s first freely elected head of state since the May Coup of 1926, and the first President of Poland ever elected in a popular vote.
But allegations that Wałęsa had been an informant for the communist security services in his youth have regularly resurfaced, tainting his legacy. And while Wałęsa has repeatedly denied these accusations, the exact nature of the relationship of the Solidarity leader with the communist security services remains, to this day, a contentious question…
Find out more about Central European history in our On this Day series.