Magazine Poland

On this Day, in 1981: martial law was imposed in Poland

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 led by Lech Wałęsa, a 35-year-old electrician at the Lenin Shipyard in Gdańsk who had been fired four years earlier.

Thanks to popular support, as well as to international support and media coverage, the workers held out until the government gave in to their demands. 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 Solidarność (Solidarity), 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.

Jaruzelski promised to impose martial law in Poland but demanded a guarantee that the Warsaw Pact would intervene militarily should he fail to control the situation. But, wary of the threat of Western political and economic sanctions, the Soviet leadership firmly and unanimously rejected the demand for military backing, even if that meant the possible loss of Poland to Solidarity.

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.

For the Poles, however, it meant putting an end to the hopes for political and civic freedoms. Government forces and ZOMO paramilitary-police rolled onto the streets to scare off demonstrators. A curfew was imposed, intercity travelling was forbidden unless a permit was granted by the authorities, food shortages intensified and censorship was placed again on all media. The secret services (SB) also wiretapped phones in public booths and state institutions.

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.

Solidarity survived as a small underground organization, supported by various international institutions, from the Catholic Church to the CIA, before being legalised in 1989 as the communist bloc crumbled.

Lech Wałęsa, who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1983, was elected president of Poland in 1990 in the country’s first democratic election.

Find out more about Central European history in our new On this Day series.