Martial Law Ends in Poland Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The end of martial law in Poland marked the Communist government’s failure to govern without appealing to democratic elements chiefly the banned trade union Solidarity.

Summary of Event

The ending of martial law signaled the final failure of communist rule in postwar Poland. General Wojciech Jaruzelski, prime minister and first secretary of the Polish Communist Party, decreed martial law in December of 1981, responding to the overwhelming popularity of Solidarity, a broad-based union with more than ten million members nearly a third of the country’s population. In August of 1980, Solidarity staged strikes in the Lenin Shipyard in Gdańsk, protesting government policies that prohibited free speech and democratic activities. Labor strikes;Poland The union called for higher wages, lower prices, and an end to censorship. Poland;martial law Martial law;Poland Solidarity [kw]Martial Law Ends in Poland (July 21, 1983) [kw]Poland, Martial Law Ends in (July 21, 1983) Poland;martial law Martial law;Poland Solidarity [g]Europe;July 21, 1983: Martial Law Ends in Poland[05190] [g]Poland;July 21, 1983: Martial Law Ends in Poland[05190] [c]Government and politics;July 21, 1983: Martial Law Ends in Poland[05190] Jaruzelski, Wojciech Wałęsa, Lech

Poles had rebelled against their communist government on other occasions most notably in 1956 but earlier regimes had treated protesters brutally and reneged on promised reforms, relying on the fact that no cohesive dissident movement challenged their authority. Poland had enjoyed a brief period of improved economic conditions in the 1970’s until the Arab oil embargo severely damaged its industrial development. In addition, Edward Gierek, Gierek, Edward first secretary of the Communist Party and the country’s leader, had borrowed heavily from the West to finance his economic plans, and most of his efforts to modernize the Polish economy failed disastrously. Consequently, what little confidence Poles had in their government’s ability to improve the standard of living vanished.

Solidarity was an unprecedented alliance of workers and intellectuals indeed, virtually a whole nation coming together to protest an unrepresentative and dictatorial government. Solidarity’s leader, Lech Wałęsa, a shipyard electrician, symbolized the new spirit of social and political activism, which was so universal that the communist government could not simply resort to violence in order to break the strike. On the contrary, the government capitulated on many of the strikers’ key demands. The Polish Communist Party removed Gierek as leader and replaced him with a reform-minded successor, Stanisław Kania. Kania, Stanisław However, the instability in the Polish leadership and the strength of Solidarity led to Kania’s replacement in 1981 by General Jaruzelski, a highly respected military man who seemed less like the Communist Party professionals and who Poles regarded with cautious optimism.

Solidarity’s endurance was sorely tested as the government stalled on fulfilling its promises and even began to repudiate agreements with the union. Solidarity continued to agitate for social, political, and economic reform, but it did so warily, well aware that its activities could provoke a Soviet invasion. In Hungary in 1956 and in Czechoslovakia in 1968, Soviet troops had overthrown communist governments which seemed to bow to the pressure of their citizens for reformed, democratic government. Poland itself had barely escaped a Soviet intervention in 1956.

Finally, the tensions between Solidarity and the government were mitigated by Jaruzelski’s imposition of martial law. Unlike the previous government crackdowns in Poland, there was little violence although many key Solidarity leaders, including Lech Wałęsa, were imprisoned. Instead, Jaruzelski cut Solidarity’s lines of communication, so that the union could not communicate with the outside world and had difficulty meeting and planning for further action. Jaruzelski then ruled the country in a South American-style “junta” a word in popular use in Poland to describe his seizure of power.

Martial law was shocking not only because it deprived people of the few democratic rights they had been allowed but because the Polish army had been used as a domestic force to suppress the opposition. Poles had been used to making a distinction between the Communist Party and the army, viewing the army as a patriotic institution, elements of which might even resist a Soviet invasion.

At first, martial law seemed a triumph for the government. There were no more strikes, and on the surface it seemed as though the government would be able to return to a centralized, command economy in which the workers would have no say. However, Poles did not join or cooperate with the government-created unions, and gradually it became clear that the government could not function without the lifting of martial law. Solidarity remained banned, but Jaruzelski conceded his defeat by agreeing to roundtable negotiations with the union in 1989, when it was once again legalized.


The ending of martial law in July of 1983 not only doomed the communist government’s exclusive hold on power, it showed that a popular movement in a communist country could effectively change the terms of political debate and action. Independent intellectuals such as Adam Michnik, a dissident and founding member of Solidarity, became role models and allies of intellectuals and union organizers in other Eastern European Soviet satellites such as Czechoslovakia and Hungary. Solidarity’s persistent and nonviolent course proved immensely influential and earned worldwide sympathy and support.

The ending of martial law led to protracted and frustrating bargaining between the government and Solidarity. Still leery of Soviet intervention, Wałęsa haggled with Jaruzelski, the very man who had imprisoned him. Solidarity’s strategy was called that of a “self-limiting revolution” that is, it aspired to gradually change the country’s form of government without directly confronting communist hegemony. To some extent, of course, the term was contradictory. How can a revolution be self-limiting? The purpose was to forestall Soviet aggression and to give the Polish government and Solidarity time to work out an understanding.

In spite of Jaruzelski’s resort to martial law, Solidarity relied on him to act in good faith, while still pressuring him to make political and economic reforms. Jaruzelski, it was said, had imposed martial as his own way of controlling Solidarity before the Soviets acted. Poles were divided as to his true motives whether his dictatorial approach had really prevented a Soviet attack or was just a rationalization for keeping the Communists in power.

Even before 1989, when Solidarity reemerged in public as a legal union, both Jaruzelski’s and Solidarity’s positions became less precarious. In 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev’s Gorbachev, Mikhail assumption of power in the Soviet Union represented the beginnings of a reform movement that relaxed tensions throughout the Eastern Bloc. Polish reformers then worried about Gorbachev’s ability to rule over the hard-line faction of the Soviet Communist Party. By the late 1980’s, it was clear that not only did Gorbachev relinquish the idea of an invasion of Poland, but he was willing to relax and eventually abandon any direct Soviet role in Eastern Europe.

In 1989, Jaruzelski capitulated to Solidarity’s demand for free parliamentary elections in return for which Solidarity supported his election as president of Poland, supposing that the general was still needed to maintain stability and to ease the transition to a noncommunist government. Jaruzelski served until 1990, when he stepped down in favor of his former archopponent, Lech Wałęsa.

Although the ending of martial law brought only limited freedoms to Poles, it began the slow process of democratization and acknowledged that Polish leaders could not remain in power without the consent of the governed. Jaruzelski gradually accepted this democratic principle as he acceded to Solidarity’s demands and eventually relinquished his office. Whether martial law itself was necessary to preempt a Soviet attack cannot be definitively answered. Soviet archives might answer this question, although there is some evidence that suggests the Soviet government itself was divided on what action to pursue. In other words, Poland’s crisis and the imposition of martial law reflected a larger crisis in the communist world and in communist leaders’ determination to stay in power. Poland;martial law Martial law;Poland Solidarity

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ascherson, Neal. The Struggles for Poland. New York: Random House, 1987. See especially the chapters on Gierek and the period leading to the formation of Solidarity, 1970-1980, and a final chapter on Solidarity and martial law. Bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brandys, Kazimierz. A Warsaw Diary, 1978-1981. New York: Random House, 1983. An important document about Poland in the years leading up to Solidarity. The diary ends on December 13, 1981, the day on which martial law was declared.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cynkin, Thomas M. Soviet and American Signalling in the Polish Crisis. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988. Covers how the West responded to Solidarity and tried to manage the crisis and its relationship with the Soviet Union.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Garton Ash, Timothy. The Polish Revolution: Solidarity. 3d ed. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2002. Explains why Poland erupted in political dissent in 1980. Chronology, notes, and bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rachwald, Arthur R. In Search of Poland: The Superpowers’ Response to Solidarity, 1980-1989. Stanford, Calif.: Hoover Institution Press, 1990. Chapters on Solidarity, the Soviet threat, martial law, and the banning of the union.

Solidarity Leads Striking Polish Workers

Poland Imposes Martial Law and Bans Solidarity

Poland Forms a Non-Communist Government

Fall of the Berlin Wall

Poland Begins Switching to a Market Economy

Dissolution of the Soviet Union

Categories: History