Cover story

Poland's Hour of Agony

Sue Masterman,Peter Lewis December 21 1981
Cover story

Poland's Hour of Agony

Sue Masterman,Peter Lewis December 21 1981

Poland's Hour of Agony

Cover story

Sue Masterman

Peter Lewis

The rumors had been circulating in Warsaw for almost a week. After 15 months of vacillating in the face of demands for reform, Poland’s Communist leadership had had enough. Finally, the time had come for ruthless drastic action against the country’s young, democratic Solidarity trade union. And this time there was no anticlimax. Just after midnight Sunday, the authorities struck with the fury of a winter gale.

As telephone and telex links at Solidarity’s Mokotowska street headquarters in Warsaw suddenly went dead, 11 truckloads of riot police circled the building and sealed it off. Witnesses spoke of people being hustled through the early dawn hours into windowless police vans. Then, in an early-morning news broadcast, Prime Minister Wojcech Jaruzelski declared a state of emergency—technically a state of war. The government, he said, had lost patience with Solidarity. Within hours, union leaders, former Communist officials—including ex-party leader Edward Gierek—and dissidents were swiftly rounded up in the winter dawn. Poland, declared Jaruzelski, will be governed by a military Council of National Salvation until the crisis is over.

The severe, calculated swiftness of the government’s crackdown caught the world by surprise. The first indication that anything was wrong came in telephone calls from Solidarity members in Warsaw to western news agencies revealing a total communication cutoff. Reporters who went to investigate were abruptly turned away by riot police. Asked to explain what was afoot they said, merely: “Solidarnosc” (Solidarity). Eyewitnesses said that at least one key Solidarity adviser in the capital, Krzysztof Sliwinski, was arrested at his home. But it was impossible to learn immediately the fate of union leader Lech Walesa and his 107-man executive, who were meeting in the Lenin shipyard at Gdansk for a strategy session.

As the snow began falling early Sunday, police swarmed into Solidarity’s Warsaw headquarters and all its regional offices to carry off sackloads of documents. When Jaruzelski went on the air at 6 a.m. to give the official version of events, troops armed with automatic rifles took up positions in the centre of the capital. An official decree, issued after his broadcast, promptly banned all assemblies, demonstrations and entertainment—except those events which are officially sanctioned. Religious services were allowed to continue. But orders were issued that identity documents must be carried in pub-

lie places and travel in border areas was restricted. To prevent the spread of information or anti-government literature, the use of duplicating equipment was banned.

The international outcry over the suppressive action was swift and damning. As Western governments expressed their dismay, a crisis centre was set up in Washington to monitor the situation and leaflets were distributed in Warsaw in defiance of the regulations. Signed by Solidarity activists at the Ursus tractor plant—used in the past as an emergency union base—they called for an immediate shutdown of Poland’s entire industrial machine. “This attack on the union is aimed at liquidating it,” the message said. “Our response must be an immediate general strike.”

Jaruzelski’s message to the nation was emotional. He pleaded that no blood be shed. Anti-state offences committed before the declaration of emergency will be forgotten and forgiven — “we do not intend to pursue a policy of revenge.” Jaruzelski claimed that he had acted with a heavy heart, and only after all attempts to solve Poland’s cri-

As Poland writhes under military rule, the Polish people are desperately trading their clothing for food

sis had failed. “Our country is on the edge of the abyss. The state structure no longer functions,” he declared.

In that, at least, he was not far from the truth. Last week, in the slushy wake of a violent December blizzard that briefly paralyzed communications and drove hungry Poles from their freezing lineups to the cold comfort of their illstocked homes, it had seemed inevitable that the bitterness of the desperate, debilitating power struggle between the state and Solidarity would shortly come to a head.

Just two weeks before Christmas, the dismal list of essentials now mostly missing from the daily diets of Poland’s 38 million people read: meat and poultry; animal and vegetable fats; milk; cheese; potatoes, vegetables and fruit; cleaning and toilet articles; clothing, footwear and other protective gear needed in the face of a severe winter.

Unofficially, the scene was much more desolate. The black market rate for the American dollar was 15 times the official rate, devaluing an average official monthly wage of 6,000 zlotys to $12. Offices were heated only to 16 C (the limit was set at 10C, but no one turned up for work). The government even had to order state chicken farms to

stop breeding. There was no more chicken feed. By the end of January, it said, egg supplies from state sources would dry up.

It was against this background of despair that Jaruzelski and Solidarity’s millions, led by Walesa, had continued their acrimonious argument over who was to rule Poland. The boundaries of the debate were set by the nationwide publication last Monday of remarks made by Walesa at a closed meeting of 900 Solidarity delegates in Radom three days earlier. The theatre where they met had been bugged. The union leader was heard to say he had never trusted the Communist leadership since it suppressed a workers’ revolt in 1970. “Let us abandon all illusions,” he went on. “Confrontation is inevitable and confrontation will take place.”

Walesa no doubt had in mind the government’s already expressed intention to introduce a series of emergency laws outlawing strikes and, in effect, imposing martial rule. Solidarity threatened to counterattack with a series of nationwide stoppages. And, sensing the approaching clash, Archbishop Jozef Glemp, the Polish primate, appealed immediately to Walesa and Jaruzelski to resume the dialogue on power sharing they had begun in November. He also asked members of the Sejm (parliament) not to enact laws that would “disrupt the domestic peace and unleash a formidable social conflict.”

But the replies were not long in coming and they were uncompromising. Strikes, said Walesa at a press conference, were the union’s only means of redress. “We cannot retreat any more. We can be passive no longer.” For his part, Sejm speaker Piotr Stefanski revealed that the emergency legislation would be presented during the legislature’s session that begins in midweek.

At week’s end the exchanges had become, if anything, more acrimonious. From the Lenin shipyard, about the only place it could be sure the government was not eavesdropping, Solidarity warned that the laws would be introduced at the government’s “peril.” Trybuna Ludu, the party daily, described the warning as a “whiff of terror.”

Meanwhile, the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia, for the first time, were including Poland’s Roman Catholic Church in their propaganda broadsides. There were also growing reports of harassment of the church in the two countries. In Czechoslovakia, a number of priests were said to have been arrested in raids on monasteries where, the authorities claimed, illegal printing presses were being operated and escaping Poles being harbored.

The scene had been set for Sunday’s dramatic event. It only remained for Jaruzelski—“Radom and Gdansk showed the real face of Solidarity,” he charged—to order in the troops.

The agony of pre-Christmas Poland is, however, only one more ordeal in the nation’s centuries of struggle. Indeed, the first record of the existence of a Polish state, in 963 AD, was made by German monks accompanying Christianizing German armies that were sweeping east. The Poles resisted that missionary thrust, accepting their Christian baptism directly from Rome instead. Ever since, the Polish Catholic Church has played a key role in defining autonomy in the face of invasion by Mongol hordes from the steppes of Asia, and Russian, German and Swedish usurpers anxious to seize a prize which was as much intellectual as physical. The first 600 years of the Polish state saw the founding of some of Europe’s first universities and the Royal Republic—a democratically elected monarchy. But true freedom was never a given in Poland. In fact, in this century it was only from 1920 until 1939 that the country enjoyed real independence. But then came the Nazi occupation in which six million Poles were exterminated in the holocaust, three million of them Jews. Polish patriots resisted by joining the ranks of the Allies, or by going underground. Still the Warsaw ghetto uprising of

1943 and the Warsaw uprising of

1944 were hopeless, if unforgettable, gestures. Adam Bromke, now a political science professor at Hamilton’s McMaster University, recalls: “In my battalion we had 30 people, one machinegun and seven pistols. We fought for 63 days.” The Red Army, meanwhile, followed a historic strategy. It let the Poles exhaust themselves against superior Nazi forces before rolling into the city’s smoking ruins.

Despite deep and cynical memories of that betrayal, Poles admit that Soviet domination of their country has been characterized by a lighter touch than elsewhere in the East Bloc—in recognition, perhaps, of their ever-volatile spirit of defiance. After the Polish army crushed the Poznan locomotive engineers’ strike of 1956, killing 100 workers, important concessions were granted to the Polish church, and 80 per cent of Polish agriculture was de-collectivized.

In two later uprisings, the ruling Polish Union Workers’ Party (PUWP) had the good fortune again to find the opposition divided. Polish workers ignored the 1968 student riots, while urban intellectuals and students failed to support the dockers of Gdansk, Gdynia and Szcsecin in their 1971 protests against food shortages and proposed food price hikes. At least 45 workers were killed and 100 were injured. But the lesson was learned. Further food price hikes in 1976 brought intellectuals, workers and

the church into a common front. Strikes and train-track blockages were backed by a newly established Workers’ Defence Committee (KOR), founded by student veterans of 1968.

That was the precursor for the dramatic events at Gdansk that launched Poland on its current stumbling march toward freedom—and the near choas of this freezing Christmas season. For all its inadequacies, Solidarity has been greeted by most Poles as a positive force—the embodiment of their hopes for a break with a past that was stultifying at best, and more often intolerable.

Until Sunday, the movement had defied gloomy predictions of its imminent demise. Unlike the hapless Hungarian and Czech revolts, fomented from the top, the Polish revolt welled up from a mighty working class indictment of

those ruling in its name. But the experiment would not have lived long enough to become street-smart if it had not displayed astonishing restraint. In their actions, Walesa and his colleagues have debunked the myth of the Pole as a madcap romantic with a posthumous medal mentality.

Solidarity’s 15-month metamorphosis from an umbrella federation of trade union associations—it has never been a single organization—to a political movement capable of imposing change upon an unwilling Communist leadership was a complex process. There was never a single factor or event that brought about the change. Yet most Polish analysts believe there was a turning point, in November a year ago.

Only days after Solidarity had seen its charter as an independent union officially registered, the union suddenly

unfurled a campaign to free political prisoners. The crusade struck many people as questionable since the first prisoners Solidarity wanted to free— five members of the right-wing Confederation for an Independent Poland (KPN) charged with “anti-state” activity—were light years removed, ideologically, from the fledgling union.

Almost immediately, Solidarity saw its own future threatened. A police swoop on its Warsaw headquarters caught two militants, Jan Narozniak and Piotr Sapelo—the latter a penpusher in the public prosecutor’s office—in the act of duplicating secret government instructions on how to deal with anti-state agitators. The union quickly threatened nationwide strikes and the authorities caved in. Says Gdansk commentator Andrzej Gorgowski: “It was Solidarity’s

readiness to defend human rights as well as plead breadand-butter causes that first drove it into politics, though you could argue that its very existence in a communist system amounted all along to a political statement.” He adds: “But after November the mask was off: when Solidarity came to wrangle over censorship, worker management and the economy, all Poland understood it was talking politics.”

The union soon had another violation of human rights to oppose. In March, the grey-uniformed milijca charged into a meeting between city authorities and Solidarity representatives in the northern city of Bydgoszcz. The union’s men were beaten up and a number were hospitalized with severe injuries. Solidarity called 9.5 million members out for a four-hour “warning” strike—the first national walkout in a communist land—to demand a government investigation. When a government aide, Miecyzlaw Rakowski, expressed astonishment at such a reaction over a “mere incident,” a Solidarity official told him, teeth clenched, “It’s to show you can’t do this to us any more.” The inquiry was held.

That incident touched on a moral issue which struck profound chords in a country that had lived in dread of its police for over three decades. But if human and moral considerations were the prime motivators, it was a political failure that set the seal on the union’s reorientation. There had been high hopes that the Communist party would shake itself out of its torpor and meet the thrust for “social renewal” at its special congress in Warsaw in July. But while the congress seemed to concede some necessity for change in its own procedures—delegates were allowed to elect

their leaders by democratic process for the first time —it failed to produce one popular reform.

“The leadership’s inability to adapt to a pluralistic system destroyed its last chance of recapturing favor,” says a Canadian diplomat on post in Warsaw since before the 1980 rebellion. “After that, the game went to Solidarity by default.” Party reformist Wojciech Lamentowicz goes further. After July, he says, the leadership ceased to govern. “No wonder the union stepped in with a plan to run the economy and called for free elections at its national congress in September. It had the power to reach for any prize.”

To reach, perhaps, but not necessarily to obtain. It had been taken for granted that Solidarity, for all its power, could not aspire to reign, while the party would not abdicate. The party’s formal right to govern was guaranteed by the famous “supremacy-of-the-party” clause in last year’s Gdansk agreement and underwritten by the might of the Soviet Union.

Ludovic Krasucki, deputy editor of the ideological magazine Nowe Drogi (New Ways) once pointed out: “Like it or not, Solidarity is condemned to co-operate with the party.” But as he said, the obligation to compromise presents the union with an uncommon dilemma: “If it becomes part of the establishment, it risks losing its audience.” Krasucki belongs to the middleof-the-road faction in a party that has been split three ways: compromisers like himself; hard-liners who would have gladly butchered upstart workers; and what Krasucki called an “abdicationist wing,” which sees worker grievances as essentially justified.

At times the line between moderates—from whose ranks sprang Stanislaw Kania and Wojciech Jaruzelski, the two party chiefs to rule since August, 1980—and the abdicationists has been a blurry one. Swept adrift by the revolutionary storm that followed Gdansk, forced to promise the moon just to get the country back to work, the party was unable to decide to fight or surrender when Solidarity turned up to collect on the IOUs. In the event, it did both. As it yielded illhumoredly to successive claims, it looked like nothing as much as an errant debtor being forced to pay up.

Hard-liners who attempted to turn the rout into an orderly retreat, by encouraging party chief Kania and his dispirited followers to harass Solidarity, were given a strong hand by the Kremlin. But the party was too divided to agree upon a common strategy toward the union or the mountain of problems

piling up as a result of the rebellion. Nor, it soon discovered, did it even have the resources after 34 years in power to clean up its own act. As one corrupt or incompetent official was fired, usually at Solidarity’s insistence, others were promoted to ineffectual posts. As one hated hard-liner left the Politburo, another sneaked back through the side door, summoned by the hard-line leader, Stefan Olszowski, to stiffen his hand in party in-fighting.

Such tactics failed, however, to advance Olszowski’s cause. Kania twice outmanoeuvred attempts to unseat him—one by the hardliners during the Bydgoszcz affair and, last June, when Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev sought his removal. When Kania did finally resign in October, it was Jaruzelski, not Olszowski, who got the

party leader’s post.

The Soviet Union, for all its huffing and puffing at various stages in the crisis, has proved to be remarkably flexible in the face of the near defection of its largest satellite nation. Moscow has never publicly threatened to invoke the Brezhnev doctrine, under which East Bloc countries claim the right to intervene when socialist rule in a sister nation is threatened. Perhaps, with tanks and troops massed in and around Poland, it did not feel the need to do so. Or perhaps Brezhnev and his aging Kremlin attendants reached the conclusion that the only hope of preventing their empire from exploding in their faces lay in allowing their subjects leeway to experiment. Still another possibility is that Moscow, like the czars, calculated that time, and General Winter, would do the job for it. If so, they may have

calculated shrewdly. The revolution, and the economic misery and political drift associated with it, have led to a swift erosion of values. The work force, never noted for its application, has taken to celebrating its new freedom by striking at the slightest provocation. The quest for dollars, to pay for stolen caviar, hi-fi gear or vices largely unknown until now—male prostitution and narcotics—is pursued relentlessly.

The hookers who regularly work Warsaw’s international hotels now find themselves vying for business with an army of determined amateurs. Venereal disease is on the upswing, and pimps fight deadly battles in back alleys to organize the freelance trade. The incidence of other crimes has soared as well, as the dregs of society come to the surface, emboldened by what seems to be police indifference and encouraged by the gains to be made from a dislocated system.

Criminals, however, operate at the fringes. What may have been central to Solidarity’s future was the constant drain on the energy of its leaders imposed by the need to keep an underfed, frozen membership together in the face of stiffening official resistance. The permanent borderline malnutrition that slowed the rate of learning in nineto 14-year-olds no doubt also took its toll on their elders. The psychological blow dealt by the collapse of last month’s talks about forming a national front must also have been great. Many Poles, terrified by the spectre of revolution, were hops ing for just such an outcome. Along with that fear last week ¿there was a crippling sense of £ disillusionment. “People,” said oKrzysztov Kacprowicz, a steel2 worker and Communist Party executive member, “no longer believe in anything or anybody—and that includes Lech Walesa, Archbishop Glemp and General Jaruzelski.”

The Polish leader may therefore have calculated correctly in deciding to send in the troops and militia. Certainly there was no reprimand from Moscow, which contented itself with reporting, briefly, the early events. But it is just as clear that even without their leaders, the 10 million members of Solidarity are capable of mounting formidable opposition in the streets and at work. It was because of that spectre, perhaps, that Pope John Paul II issued an immediate call to his countrymen to avoid bloodshed. But there is no guarantee that they will now stand by peacefully and watch the forced distintegration of their 15-month revolutionary dream.

Val Ross

David Halpin-Byrne