A lid over boiling water – Communist Poland and the path to Solidarność

This city was the base on which the Soviet Union was progressively destroyed. But how did it get there?

The end of the second world war was not the beginning of Poland’s road to freedom. It was the beginning of Poland’s Communist capitulation. The Third Reich brought together unlikely allies in a war against the Nazi forces – Capitalist America and Britian and Communist Soviet Union. While the West of Europe was liberated by British and American forces, the east of Europe was the purview of the Soviet Union. Poland bordered Germany and was the final frontier of the Soviets.

At the end of the war, the Soviet Union advanced deep into Poland and managed to successfully push the Germans out. The USSR was far ahead of the western forces, it was a few days away from Berlin while the western forces had not yet entered Germany. Power in in the hands of the Soviets. In February of 1945, the leaders of the three Allied nations – Franklin Roosevelt (US), Winston Churchill (UK) and Josef Stalin (USSR) – met in Yalta to discuss the political fate of postwar Europe.

Each side qanted something – the US wanted USSR support for an invasion of Japan and participation in the United Nations, the UK wanted democracy and freedoms in eastern Europe, the USSR wanted a clear Soviet sphere of influence. In retrospect, it was clear that Europe would be split into a Capitalist and Communist sphere of influence – the flint of the Cold War. But the immediate desire for an end to war was more important than the clashes of the future. Forced by a weaker hand, among other reasons, Churchill and Roosevelt gave in to Stalin’s demands for a Polish government installed by the Soviets that operated on a “broader democratic basis”.

Stalin never carried out his promise of free and fair elections. And instead post war Eastern Europe become part of the Eastern Bloc. These nations had elections which were neither free nor fair, they in effect became puppet states – satellite states under Soviet control. The first leader of Communist Poland was Boleslaw Bierut. Bierut was a hard communist and politician of the old style, he signed the death warrants of many community leaders opposing his regime. His reign lasted from 1948 until 1952 (he was officially in power earlier but shared power with Wladyslaw Gomulka, the de facto leader of the party an state) when he passed away under mysterious circumstances.

Short lived reigns by other leaders followed then by the leadership of  Wladyslaw Gomulka from 1956 til 1970.

Unlike his immediate post war success, Gomulka’s second de facto period of leadership saw instead increasing economic and political hardships. The suppressible nature of communism means that a communist system can only survive if tangible improvements in people’s lives remain – a social compact that trades in freedoms and the right to change governments for material growth. Once material growth stops, the system loses its power. The situation deteriorated to such an extent that intellecutuals and students risked their lives to protest the government in 1968, inspired by the Prague Spring. The sledgehammer was used and the protests were forcibly suppressed.

Putting a lid over a pot however does nothing to cool the boiling contents underneath (a worsening economy and lack of freedoms). And the discontent boiled over again in 1970 when price hikes were imposed on basic consumer goods.

Gomulka was replaced with Edward Gierek who attempted to internationalise the Polish economy and integrating it with the global one saw lives improve but came crashing in 1973 when the OAPEC nations imposed a global embargo on oil sales in retaliation for the American role in Israel’s Yom Kippur War.

Poland’s economy crashed and in 1976 and just like Gomulka, Gierek was forced to raise consumer prices again. The protests were again harshly put down. Something changed in 1978, an erstwhile unknown Polish Catholic cardinal was elected to the office of Supreme Pontif of the Holy Roman Catholic Church (Pope), Karol Wojtyla’s election as Pope John Paul II was a powerful sign of opposition to the communist bloc. Here was a relatively young, intelligent, charismatic and courageous priest and political leader.

Force on its own was suppressed by force, the physical resistance needed a spiritual impetus. And in the election of the first slavic Pope, Poland got its spiritual and moral impetus to fight back. One of Pope John Paul’s first trips out of Rome was to Poland. He visited Poland in 1979, and added a bit more firewood to a Poland ready to boil over.

All that was needed now was a catalyst, and the Polish people would get it in a shipyard in Gdansk with the sacking of a woman called Anna Walentynowicz.

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