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Colin Barker & Kara Weber

From Gdansk to Military Repression

Part I: Sixteen months of Solidarity

5. The tanks move in

The militarisation of the regime

For half a year the two forces contending for the destiny of Poland were neatly balanced. The party leadership was incapable of reorganising the state machinery sufficiently to undermine Solidarity seriously, while the union for its part was not prepared – or preparing – to use its mass support to displace the regime. But this condition of mutual paralysis could not last indefinitely. As the divisions within Solidarity became more apparent in the early autumn of 1981, and popular confusion grew, the ruling class was provided with an opportunity to begin to resolve its own internal crisis – as a prelude to imposing its solution on society at large.

The key here was the generals, particularly Jaruzelski.

The armed forces were the one part of the state machine that had remained relatively immune from the turmoil of the rest of society – if only because the theory of the ‘self-limiting revolution’ meant that Solidarity activists put little effort into organising there. The rank and file had not been stirred up by the experience of participation in strikes and demonstrations. And the officer corps was neither demoralised by involvement in managing an economy that was falling apart nor riven with the deep careerism and factions that rent the party leadership.

What is more, the army enjoyed a popularity with the mass of workers and peasants that was completely lacking for the party.

While the party was regarded as something utterly alien, the army was not recognised as, ultimately, a weapon to keep the same system in place. One of the reasons – it was said – the Russians held back from the invasion was that the Polish army would turn its guns round and fight against them; Jaruzelski had sworn an oath never to fire upon Polish workers, and so on. Opinion polls placed popular trust in the army only a little below that in Solidarity itself. This trust continued, in spite of the military scabbing on the printers’ strike in the summer, or the appearance of young soldiers on TV attacking Solidarity for its ‘counter-revolutionary aims’. Despite, too, the links between the hardline critics of Kania’s policy of ‘renewal’ and the army newspaper Zolnierz Wolnosci (Soldier of Freedom) which acted as a mouthpiece for those who wanted a crackdown on Solidarity’s activities.

A strong nationalist tradition that reinforced people’s hatred of the party leadership – seen as a group foisted on the country from outside – also made them identify with the army as the supreme symbol of the nation.

At some point in the summer Jaruzelski seems to have decided – perhaps with the assistance of the Russians and the regime’s ‘hardliners’ – to exploit these advantages, both to crush Solidarity and to raise himself to supreme power. In one sense he was repeating the experience of Pilsudski in the 1920s. Then too the ruling class had proved incapable of providing itself with a coherent leadership. Pilsudski had seized power using a combination of military might and personal popular support – he had, after all, been a founder member of the Socialist Party and was regarded as the architect of Polish national independence. Jaruzelski, hoping to play the part of a latter-day Bonaparte, looked to using the exhaustion of all the warring classes in society after a period of extreme turmoil, to keep himself in power – only, with the officer corps doing for the ruling class what that class could not do for itself.

When exactly the preparations for the coup began is not absolutely clear. The Sunday Times Insight team have claimed that Nato analysis of Russian military radio usage suggests that the Russians began to scheme in this as early as April – just after the Bydgoszcz crisis proved the weakness of the regime and the lack of will of the union.

‘The inference was clear. Moscow, which holds all senior roles within the Warsaw Pact, was secretly setting up its own command control network alongside the system normally operated by the Polish army. Fanning out from their Soviet army bases at Legnica and Romatov, they sorted out convenient transmitter sites, often in remote buildings like barns, or even trucks parked in fields, and tested their links with the Soviet Union. Then, as abruptly as it started, the new traffic vanished from the air.’ [85]

In June and July, careful army exercises were conducted to test the reliability of the Polish officer corps. Quite likely these did still not represent a final decision to employ the military option, but rather contingency plans to be put into effect when everything else failed.

But by the summer or early autumn, Jaruzelski must have turned the option of a military takeover into a definite programme of action. The first moves were unspectacular. Many must have gone completely unnoticed. After the Party Congress in July there were four serving generals in the cabinet. There were also five generals in key positions: in charge of the state airline, and the administrative, police, transport and mining departments. On August 2nd, Jaruzelski made a speech to the Military Council outlining its role in the crisis. He saw its tasks as ‘fighting speculation and other socially destructive phenomena.’ Civilian inspectors were to be guarded by armed military personnel. In addition, the Polish press agency PAP reported ‘in connection with the increasingly unfavourable and dangerous phenomena in the international situation in the country ... Against this background measures were discussed to ensure the required level of defence preparedness in Poland.’ [86] The military were checking the reliability of their troops.

In October the army made its first serious moves. Military service for the conscripts about to be demobbed was extended by two months. Three days later, after a bitter Central Committee meeting where the regime’s ‘reformers’ and ‘hardliners’ blocked each others’ moves, Jaruzelski displaced Kania to become the sole man in charge of the state. He now held the offices of prime minister, first Party secretary and defence minister.

Within days he announced plans for sending troops into the countryside, in small groups of three, so as to seem non-threatening. Their role, it was announced, was to ease the distribution system in the shops, put an end to the hoarding of goods, help ensure pensioners got their coal and gather in crops left to rot in the fields. This they did. There was enough chaos around for them to sort out and thereby gain some popularity; but of course the military also sat down with local administrators, looked over their shoulders at the workings of the system and did an essential reconnaissance job for the future coup. In spite of an initial announcement that they were also there to ‘solve disputes and suppress street provocations’, this was quickly played down and there are no reports known to us of them being used in that role. A month after being deployed they were withdrawn from the countryside, presumably to report back, and a week after that they began playing a similar role in urban areas, this time with much less dramatic publicity than before.

Jaruzelski’s ‘Bonapartist’ strategy did not merely rest upon the careful deployment of military power. It also rested on the assumption that the popularity of the military with the populace and the inability of anyone else to point a way out of the crisis, would gain substantial support from such an approach – including from the ‘moderate’ wing of Solidarity.

At first, his assumption seemed correct. In July Warsaw Solidarity’s Bujak noted that among many workers: ‘There exists a desire, one senses, for a strong government, although this would have to impose many restrictions ...’ [87]

And Jacek Kuron was even more perceptive: ‘Part of society could turn to the idea of a strong government as a ray of hope. We can already see the idea grow around the figure of Jaruzelski ... They think a strong movement with the army as part can save the country ...’ [88]

Illusions about the military certainly existed within the praesidium of Solidarity. When Jaruzelski took over the party leadership Walesa seemed almost favourable to the move: ‘At least it means power is concentrated in one man’s hands. What we need is a strong reasonable government we can negotiate with.’ [89]

Only a month before the coup a western socialist journalist in Warsaw could describe the mood of the union’s leadership: ‘Jaruzelski has a reputation, as premier, as an intransigent ‘liberal’. As head of the army, he refused to use troops against strikers in 1970, 1976 and 1980. This has gained him great respect among the workers. And apart from this, he appears as a man of action rather than a man of verbal promises.’ [90]

Such illusions meant that Jaruzelski was able to make his first moves towards militarisation of the country without running into widespread opposition from within the workers’ movement.

He took repressive actions so as to ‘test the water’ of union reactions – and the union leadership interpreted these as provocations directed against Jaruzelski by ‘hardliners’. Instead of mobilising the bitter and immediate anger of workers against the forces of the state, the union leaders sent them home, calling for token protests only.

The first such major confrontation since the Bydgoszcz incident came in the Silesian towns of Wroclaw and Katowice in late October. Police responded to Jaruzelski’s appointment as party leader by going on to crowded streets to seize Solidarity activists who were distributing leaflets – leaflets that in one case urged soldiers to side with workers. Huge crowds of workers immediately began assembling to challenge the police action – in Wroclaw besieging the police station, in Katowice turning over police vans to free those arrested. Yet the response of Solidarity leaders was to urge the crowds to disperse, so as not to ‘provoke’ the authorities. The national leadership of the union called a one-hour general strike in protest at the incidents – but did nothing to encourage workers on the ground to develop a movement that would undermine the ability of the police to repeat them. Walesa declared his hope that the strike would be the last one of its kind.

In November, police attacked union members at Chorzow who were mounting a poster campaign demanding greater access to the media. 21 people were detained, some beaten, one hospitalised. A week later, in Sosnowice, there was a still more serious attack on workers. Several phials of mustard gas were tossed from a car outside a mine gate 60 people, including miners and passers-by, some of them children, had to be taken to hospital.

But the praesidium was spending the month of November ... attempting to arrive at an agreement with Jaruzelski for a ‘national accord’ between themselves, the heads of the church and the state.

On the second day of the Solidarity National Commission meeting in the first week of November an invitation was received from the government for Walesa to join joint talks with Jaruzelski and Cardinal Glemp for the Church. The invitation caused widespread confusion within the union. According to one left wing western journalist in Poland, ‘Strong regional leaders – in Warsaw, Lodz, Bydgoszcz, Szczecin – were against participation in the tripartite talks. But the National Commission did not take a stand and the next day the weekly praesidium meeting of the union ended with a communique expressing goodwill to the talks.’ [91]

So in the month of November, when the final elements of the military takeover must have been being put together, the mass of union members saw their leaders engaged in apparently quite friendly talks with Jaruzelski – the head of the armed forces.

Solidarity’s final ten days

On the first day of December Solidarity’s praesidium still believed that the regime was acting with the best intentions in the world. ‘Solidarity’s negotiators expressed moderate optimism at the outcome of preliminary negotiations – both sides showed a willingness to compromise.’

Their illusions were not to last another 24 hours.

While the workers’ struggles had been subsiding in November, one group influenced by Solidarity struggled more than at any time in the previous 17 months. A wave of student occupations swept colleges from one end of the country to the other.

Among the institutions drawn into this was a college for trainee firemen in Warsaw. The struggle there was particularly embarrassing for the regime, since they came under the Ministry of the Interior and were theoretically subject to the same sort of discipline as the Police. Smashing this occupation was a necessary part of any run up to a complete takeover by the military and police and, what is more, could provide a very good test of what Solidarity’s reaction would be to such an eventuality.

On 2 December many hundreds of police surrounded the trainee firemen’s school and then smashed their way in, in a military style operation complete with helicopters. For the first time since Gdansk, the forces of the state had been used to smash the basic form of workers’ protest.

The regime was not playing games any more. It had shown it was prepared to smash the workers’ movement the moment it got the chance. Just to rub the point home, it announced on the same day it was going to ask parliament for the power to ban strikes for months at a time.

Lech Walesa tried, desperately, to hold the line for the old approach of conciliation with the regime. He rushed to the scene of the firemen’s occupation to urge calm. He told crowds outside ‘We must stick together. The union is a powerful weapon hanging over the authorities – but it can’t be triggered all the time.’ In the days that followed he made final desperate attempts via Cardinal Glemp to arrange a ‘dialogue’ with Jaruzelski. But even he hardly seemed any longer to believe that confrontation was avoidable. At a very important national meeting of Solidarity delegates in Radom the next day he admitted (in words which the regime was to try to use against him) ‘confrontation is inevitable and confrontation will take place. Let us abandon all illusions. They have been thumbing their noses at us.’

Walesa still wanted to put off confrontation and opposed calls for a general strike against the strike-ban law. But the other delegates were no longer prepared to sit back while the regime prepared to crush them. There was an overwhelming feeling for a general strike the moment the law was introduced and for nationwide protest demonstrations on 17 December – the anniversary of the 1970 killings in Gdansk. Bujak from Warsaw seems to have received general support when he outlined a plan drawn up by his region’s praesidium for the formation of factory-based workers’ militias to defend strikes and occupations. Apparently he argued ‘The first assault of the worker guards will be against the radio and TV’.

Suddenly, it was the radicals, not the moderates, who were determining Solidarity policy. And the approach was no longer purely defensive. The question of state power, of who ran society, was openly broached for the first time in the union’s history. The obvious preparedness of the state to smash the union meant that former moderates were being forced to think about how to pose an alternative to the state – in near-revolutionary terms.

Speaker after speaker urged the need for the union to form a provisional government ‘to pave the way for free elections’. The idea was still not for the workers in Solidarity to hold total power, but to take the initiative in forcing the other groups in society to share power with them. So Rulewski from Bydgoszcz suggested that the union form a temporary government based upon a 30% allocation of seats to the Party, 25% to the peasants, 25% to Solidarity, and 20% to other groups like the nationalist Confederation for an Independent Poland and the lay Catholics. The aim was for Solidarity to take the initiative by imposing this government, while at the same time placating the Russians by showing that their interests were to be respected. It was in this light that the suggestion was put forward of a double referendum to be organised by the union, with one question asking people to reject the party’s monopoly of power and the other asking them to reaffirm support for the Russian alliance.

The decisions were confused, in the sense that they still partially ducked the question of who was to rule Poland: the workers in Solidarity or the bureaucratic ruling class represented by the party? But within the confused formulations there was a core understanding that if the union did not try to take control of society it would be smashed. The time for shilly-shallying was over. And so people saw the threatened general strike as all-important. As Karol Modzelewski put it, this was to be ‘the final struggle’.

In the days that followed efforts were made to turn the whole union round. By 12 December one report from Warsaw suggested that: ‘The majority of union activists see a confrontation as inevitable in the near future and are already taking counter measures in the factories; in the big factories the organisation of workers’ militias is not infrequent nor is the forcing out of “orthodox” Communist Party members.’ [92]

Yet it was very late in the day to make this turn-around. For the best part of a year the day to day leadership of the union had been telling people not to strike, not to struggle, but instead to rely on the negotiating skills of union leaders. Now it was suddenly telling them to prepare for a struggle the like of which they had never taken part in before. In particular, it was telling them to prepare for a confrontation with the armed forces of the state.

Such a new mobilisation was bound to be difficult to achieve in a short time. A workers’ movement is not a trained army, that can be told to march in one direction, then another, to remain in its barracks for weeks and then to move straight to the assault. Its power comes from the way in which the very forward momentum of the most powerful sections of workers raises hope in the most oppressed, the most downtrodden, the most ‘backward’ sections, drawing them into action. As they begin to challenge the miserable conditions in which they live and work and the petty tyrannies of the foreman, of the local police, they begin to identify with the conception of an all-embracing workers’ struggle that was previously quite foreign to them. Once, however, they are told to stop struggling, the miserable conditions and the petty tyrannies are reimposed on them. Their mental horizons close in. They lose their sense of identity with a wider movement. That cannot be restored just by a different sets of commands from the national leaders of the workers movement.

Once the forward momentum of a workers’ movement is stopped, the movement necessarily recedes. And it them takes an immense and time-consuming effort of agitation to begin to restore the momentum.

What applies to workers in general applies a hundred times more to those workers the regime depends upon to smash the others, to the workers in uniform, the rank and file soldiers and police.

While the workers’ movement is going forward from strength to strength, it attracts sympathy from within even the most hardened, battle-trained sections of the armed forces. That was why in Poland Jaruzelski was not willing to risk turning the armed forces against the workers when he was asked to by leading members of the regime in August 1980, March 1981 and again the autumn of 1981. He feared that if he hit the workers’ movement with the army it might be the army that broke into pieces not the workers’ movement.

He had reason to be frightened. Even within the hardened ranks of the police, a movement developed in the first part of 1981 for the right to form a union linked to Solidarity, with groups of rank and file police sitting in Warsaw police stations over the demand. As late as early December, the ‘founding committee of the trade union in the civil militia’ protested – in the very last issue of Solidarity Weekly – at the use of the police in the raid on the fire cadets’ school. ‘The militia’, they declared, ‘was formed to protect the interests of society as a whole, and not those of the ruling minority.’ They called on all police officers to protest against ‘the use of the police in political conflicts and the suppression of justified popular actions.’ Within the army the situation must have been even more precarious – half the soldiers were conscripts, many of whom would have been Solidarity members before enrolment. Thus in October, when, as part of Jaruzelski’s militarisation measures, conscription was extended by two months, conscripts in Jelenia Gora wrote to Solidarity calling upon the union to organise demonstrations on 24 October, the day they had been due to be demobilised. ‘We have fulfilled our constitutional duty towards our homeland and we want to use the strength of our arms for our country’s benefit and not against our families’, they wrote. [93]

Yet the union did virtually nothing to encourage this ferment inside the police stations and barracks. Thus it passed resolutions in favour of a police union. But it did not mobilise the mass of its membership to support its sympathisers in either the police or the army. You only have to imagine what the impact would have been of tens of thousands of workers marching to the police stations to show their support for the police protesters inside, to see how important this would have been: no doubt rank and file police would soon have been mixing with masses of workers, creating a new solidarity between the two, with the police chiefs losing their ability to get their way over anything. Again, strikes and demonstrations in support of the conscripts on 24 October would have had the same effect.

The union, however, was committed in those months to holding the movement back. And that meant leaving the rank and file police and soldiers to the mercy of those who had command over them.

By the beginning of December, it was too late to expect the ranks of the armed forces to disobey their officers. The workers’ movement no longer seemed to have the forward momentum necessary if it was to provide protection for those who broke military discipline and refused to repress workers. If it could not protect the trainee firemen’s occupation against the state, it could not protect soldiers who faced court martial should they disobey a single order.

In such circumstances, the measures taken by Solidarity in its last ten days to prepare for all out confrontation were, tragically, bound to be inadequate. Workers militias were bound to be ineffective in defending the union in the face of an army and police force whose rank and file did not dare disobey their officers. It was not that the state was so strong that it was always bound to win in any confrontation. It was, rather, that the ‘moderate’ policies of the union’s leadership over the previous year had weakened the union while allowing Jaruzelski to restore cohesion and strength to the forces of the state.

Hence the final tragic scene of the drama. On 11–12 December the national commission of Solidarity met in Gdansk to put the final touches to its plans to resist the anti-union law. At this meeting, ‘The majority of the Solidarity leadership took a position of total confrontation, and there were bitter attacks on Walesa for having taken part in the tripartite meeting with Jaruzelski and Glemp. The creation of a provisional government was a theme running through all the contributions’. [94]

That night the armed forces closed down telecommunications networks throughout the country, sealed off the main roads and arrested the national and regional leaders of the union as they slept in their beds in a Gdansk hotel.

Polish workers awoke the next morning to find that the national and local structures of their union existed no more. In the days that followed the strongest, most confident groups of workers in the large work places of the Northern coast, Warsaw and Silesia fought a heroic, desperate rear guard action, with strikes and occupations and street demonstrations. But the absolutely solid general strike which had been hoped for, with every workplace in the country occupied, did not materialise, still less the massive mobilisations on the streets that alone could have cracked the armed forces unity. The workers movement just did not have the forward momentum at that late stage to achieve such miracles.


85. Sunday Times, 20 December 1981.

86. Guardian, 3 August 1981.

87. Robotnik, op. cit.

88. Ibid.

89. Guardian, 20 October 1981.

90. Il Manifesto, 12 November 1981.

91. Ibid.

92. Ibid.

93. Guardian, 17 October 1981.

94. Il Manifesto, 13 December 1981.

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Last updated: 22.9.2013