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National Exhibit
National Exhibit
History
Communism in Poland: A Brief History of Its Collapse

On June 28, 1956 protests in the streets of Poznań turned into a two-day revolt in which 74 people were killed and about 500 were wounded. In the early hours a crowd of 100,000 gathered in front of police and Party headquarters and a peaceful demonstration demanding bread turned into pitched battles after shots were fired. The excessively repressive measures eventually led to the removal of Marshall Konstantin Rokossovsky who approved the sending of 10,000 soldiers and 360 tanks to quell the Poznań revolt and lobbied for Soviet military intervention in Poland.

For many October 1956 was a turn towards a more hopeful future since it averted potential Soviet intervention, although the Hungarian revolution had a chilling effect on reforms in the entire bloc. Gomułka did not live up to the myth of an independent-minded leader. He did not condemn the Soviet invasion of Hungary in spite of widespread Polish sympathy with the Hungarians.

Unlike 1956, March 1968 events involving huge youth protests were not provoked by economic hardships and seem orchestrated by General Mieczysław Moczar’s security apparatus to take control of the Party. The vehement attack on “the Zionists and intellectuals” was unprecedented in a country that after WWII was de facto without Jews having experienced the Holocaust and post-WWII immigration. The anti-Semitic campaign affected those who were culturally assimilated, or not identifying themselves as Jews. The campaign unleashed by the infamous security chief had the Party’s blessing. It forced about 20,000 [13,300 according to IPN] of the few remaining Poles of Jewish background to emigrate from the country of their birth that issued them one-way travel documents and stripped them of their citizenship.

Gomułka increasingly saw himself as the defender of “democratic centralism,” which he purportedly personified. He feared that its erosion in Czechoslovakia would end his own reign. He did not waver in offering “fraternal assistance” of Polish troops to the invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Warsaw Pact in August 21, 1968. While Gomułka’s fall seemed predictable and change in leadership one of the early demands, no one anticipated a violent workers revolt on the Baltic Coast that would have a decisive impact on the country’s future.

During the December 1970 workers revolt, brought on by a 40% price hike on basic food products ten days before Christmas, the shipyard workers on the Baltic Coast turned against the system, burning the Party and SB [secret police] offices. Memorializing the fallen shipyard workers in December 1970 inspired Solidarity a decade later. The Gdańsk region was cut off from the outside world to minimize the impact of the events on the rest of the country and to control communication channels.

Street demonstrations regressed into violence when the security forces tried to impose their will on the protestors with gas canisters and water cannon. Looting and gunfire, some of it clearly provoked, brought in the military In Gdynia on December 17 unarmed workers, were randomly gunned down, including shootings from helicopters. To quell the unrest the regime dispatched 27,000 soldiers, 750 APCs and 550 tanks to the Gdańsk region and Szczecin. Official death toll for the six days of fighting at 45, with 1,165 wounded and 2989 arrested, grossly underestimates the number of victims by as much as tenfold.

Edward Gierek’s rise and fall resembled his predecessor’s. In trying to appease Poles while modernizing the economy, the Gierek regime ran up a foreign debt nearly bankrupting the country. In June 1976, over 71 000 people participated in the brief but widespread labor unrest, brutally dealt with by the security forces.

Both the Church and the intellectual community expressed moral outrage at the mistreatment of the workers in Ursus, Radom and Płock. The 1976 repressions led to the founding of KOR [Committee for the Defense of Workers] on September 24 that became the main watchdog organization for human rights infractions, documenting police violence, monitoring the courts, and providing much needed channel of communication both internally and abroad. On April 29, 1978, “the cradle of Solidarity,” the WZZ [Free Trade Union] of the Coast was founded in Gdańsk “to protect the legal and humanitarian interests of the workers.”

Outside pressures dramatically increased with the spotlight on Poland after the election of Karol Józef Wojtyła as Pope on October 16, 1978. It is hard to imagine Solidarity as a mass movement of moral regeneration without Pope John Paul II. The Pope’s recognition that the communist system was based on fear was the catalyst that eventually freed the captive nations of Central and Eastern Europe. It was the message of “the Pope from Poland” carried home during his first visit in June 1979 that inspired millions.

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Poland
Location:  Eastern Europe
Capital:  Warsaw
Communist Rule:  1944-1989
Status:  Abolished - 19.07.89
Victims of Communism:
2 million