Poland Imposes Martial Law and Bans Solidarity

Fifteen months after its emergence, Solidarity, an independent trade union and social movement, was suppressed by the Communist government of Poland. The suppression was met with condemnation from the West and passive protest within Poland.

Summary of Event

Following the strikes of August, 1980, which had resulted in the recognition of Solidarity as an independent, self-governing trade union, Lech Wałęsa and others attempted to consolidate the movement that had begun in Gdańsk. Although officially a labor movement, Solidarity actually had much broader implications for human rights. Economic issues such as pay raises and a five-day workweek were addressed. Social inequalities, freedom of information and discussion, the privileged position of the Communist Party, and the interpretation of Polish history free from propaganda constraints were also matters of broad and open discussion. There seemed to be a spirit of renewal throughout all of Poland. Membership in Solidarity eventually grew until there were nearly ten million members in a nation whose population was only about thirty-five million. Solidarity
Martial law;Poland
Poland;martial law
[kw]Poland Imposes Martial Law and Bans Solidarity (Dec. 13, 1981)
[kw]Martial Law and Bans Solidarity, Poland Imposes (Dec. 13, 1981)
[kw]Bans Solidarity, Poland Imposes Martial Law and (Dec. 13, 1981)
[kw]Solidarity, Poland Imposes Martial Law and Bans (Dec. 13, 1981)
Martial law;Poland
Poland;martial law
[g]Europe;Dec. 13, 1981: Poland Imposes Martial Law and Bans Solidarity[04730]
[g]Poland;Dec. 13, 1981: Poland Imposes Martial Law and Bans Solidarity[04730]
[c]Civil rights and liberties;Dec. 13, 1981: Poland Imposes Martial Law and Bans Solidarity[04730]
[c]Business and labor;Dec. 13, 1981: Poland Imposes Martial Law and Bans Solidarity[04730]
Jaruzelski, Wojciech
Wałęsa, Lech
Gwiazda, Andrzej
Brezhnev, Leonid
[p]Brezhnev, Leonid;Soviet-Polish relations[Soviet Polish relations]
Kania, Stanisław

It was clear to the Communist regime that it needed to make changes. The previous party boss was replaced early in September, 1980, by Stanisław Kania, a colorless functionary. He attempted to reach some kind of political solution rather than take military action against Solidarity, as some hard-liners within the party were suggesting. Nevertheless, the regime was slow to honor the Gdańsk Agreement Gdańsk Agreement (1980)[Gdansk Agreement] signed in August. For example, when Solidarity tried to obtain official registration in September, it faced bureaucratic resistance. When they eventually met on November 4, Wałęsa told Kania that unless the regime fully honored the Gdańsk Agreement, it might not be possible to maintain Solidarity’s peaceful approach, for there were radical activists in the movement who wished to go further and faster. These included the vice president of Solidarity, Andrzej Gwiazda, Wałęsa’s longtime associate in the trade movement.

Reaction to Solidarity abroad was mixed. The nations of the West applauded the growth of a movement which was seen as strengthening human rights and shaking the foundations of the Soviet system that had been imposed on Eastern Europe after World War II. In the countries of the Soviet bloc, there was great concern that the precedent in Poland might undermine Communist control elsewhere. The Polish regime was under increasing pressure to “do something” about Solidarity, and several times in the fall of 1980 Kania and others were called to Moscow to consult with Soviet president Leonid Brezhnev. During the first half of December, there was a distinct possibility of a Soviet invasion of Poland, similar to what had happened in Hungary in 1956 and in Czechoslovakia in 1968. Kania was, however, able to convince the Soviets that Poland must be left alone to resolve its own problems, and international tensions eased.

In Poland, enthusiasm for the union continued to grow in early 1981. A peasant and farmer organization called Rural Solidarity, Rural Solidarity which was designed to parallel the original union in the countryside, emerged and sought recognition from the regime. This precipitated a government crisis, and the prime minister was replaced by Defense Minister General Wojciech Jaruzelski on February 9. In March, police broke up a Rural Solidarity meeting in the town of Bydgoszcz and badly beat several people. Solidarity threatened a nationwide strike if its broadened program of social and economic issues was not accepted. For ten days, from March 20 to 30, Warsaw Pact armies under Soviet leadership undertook maneuvers on Poland’s borders, and there was again fear of invasion. At the last minute, on March 30, Wałęsa reached a compromise with the government and succeeded in pushing a cancellation of the proposed strike through Solidarity’s leadership. This step was, however, regarded by some as high-handed and undemocratic on Wałęsa’s part, and in the aftermath serious internal divisions began to emerge in Solidarity. Wałęsa increasingly was challenged by Gwiazda.

In the Polish Communist Party, hard-liners supporting the Soviet view of Polish affairs pushed for action throughout the spring and summer of 1981. At the same time, the grim realities of the deteriorating Polish economy and of food shortages were becoming even more apparent. Meat rationing had begun on April 1, and wildcat strikes took place throughout the country over issues of worker management. Within Solidarity, Wałęsa was having difficulty maintaining control. At the first national congresses of the union in September and October, he retained the presidency, defeating three opponents who were more radical than he, including Gwiazda, although he received only 55 percent of the vote.

On October 18, under increasing pressure, Kania resigned as party secretary. The Central Committee elected Prime Minister and Defense Minister General Jaruzelski to succeed him. Many saw this decision as an admission that the party could no longer rule and that it had turned the affairs of the country over to the general and the military. Five days later, Jaruzelski sent army units in small groups into the countryside, ostensibly to help local rural administrators with food collection and distribution in the face of worsening economic conditions. In retrospect, it is clear this was a “dress rehearsal” for events in December.

Although some of the original enthusiasm for Solidarity had begun to dissipate as the result of disputes over tactics and leadership, its program of human and labor rights still commanded great support. In early November, Solidarity expressed a willingness to meet with the regime to discuss its six-point agenda: social control of economic decision making, access to mass media, economic reform, democratization of local government at the district and province level, reform of the legal system, and price reform. Eventually, the regime agreed to meet with Solidarity to consider these points, but throughout November and early December no progress was made, and there were numerous strikes. Within Solidarity several leaders, including Gwiazda, resigned to protest Wałęsa’s policy, which they regarded as “too conciliatory.”

By the beginning of December, economic and political tensions were increasing. Against Wałęsa’s advice, Solidarity’s national leadership voted on December 12 to declare December 17 as a national day of protest. The leadership also called for a national referendum in February on whether the Communist Party and Jaruzelski were capable of governing or whether a new, temporary, government should be established to hold free elections.

During the night of Saturday, December 12, and the early morning hours of Sunday, December 13, Jaruzelski announced that, in accordance with the constitution, a “state of war” (the Polish equivalent of martial law) had been introduced. He declared that Poland was on the brink of an abyss and charged that Solidarity was preparing to overthrow the state.

Troops took up positions all over Poland, and internal and foreign communication lines were cut. Wałęsa and the rest of Solidarity’s leadership, along with many intellectuals, cultural figures, and journalists, were arrested and imprisoned. Jaruzelski placed the government under the direction of the twenty-one-person Military Council of National Salvation, which he headed. He announced a twelve-point program that, among other things, suspended basic civil rights, banned public gatherings, instituted a curfew, imposed censorship, temporarily closed all educational institutions, and militarized police, fire, civil defense, and national-security-related industries.

Although there were sporadic instances of resistance, within two weeks Solidarity and opposition to the military regime had been crushed. For the next ten months, Poland lived under the “state of war,” while the Military Council for National Salvation established what it regarded as order and stability. In October, 1982, the Polish parliament, the Sejm, acted to dissolve Solidarity. It appeared that the end of an era in Polish and human rights had been reached.


Reaction to the imposition of martial law in Poland and the suppression of Solidarity was swift throughout the world. Jaruzelski was praised by the Soviets and other Eastern Bloc leaders for having moved to defend order and stability. In the West, however, there was universal condemnation. U.S. president Ronald Reagan Reagan, Ronald ordered economic sanctions against the Polish government on December 23 and invited all people everywhere to light a candle in their windows on Christmas to remember the loss of freedom in Poland. In his New Year’s message, Pope John Paul II John Paul II criticized military rule. On January 11, 1982, the foreign ministers of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) condemned what they regarded as the Soviet role in Poland and hinted that sanctions of some kind might be imposed. The Polish crisis, symbolizing the issues of human freedom and rights that had long been part of the Cold War, strained relations between East and West as badly as anything since the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968.

For those in Poland who had been imprisoned, conditions were difficult. The internees were often kept in close confinement in rat-infested cells and denied proper medical care and hygiene. Those who were not in prison protested passively as best they could: They went out for walks in public during the time the government television station was broadcasting the news, and they made the private, political jokes which have always been common in repressive political regimes. For example, they turned the Polish acronym for Jaruzelski’s council, WRON, into the Polish word for “crow,” wrona, and laughed about no crow being able to defeat an eagle, the national symbol of Poland. They also turned for solace to religion, in particular the “Masses for Poland” celebrated weekly in Warsaw by Father Jerzy Popiełuszko, Popiełuszko, Jerzy who began his sermons by saying “because freedom of speech has been taken away from us, let us therefore pray in silence.”

After nearly a year in prison, Wałęsa wrote a private letter to Jaruzelski in which he proposed a dialogue about what was best for Poland’s future. He was soon released. On December 31, 1982, martial law was suspended, and in July of 1983 the “state of war” was officially ended. Although the union remained illegal, the ideals of Solidarity were still alive, and they were reinforced when Wałęsa received the Nobel Peace Prize Nobel Peace Prize;Lech Wałęsa[Walesa] in 1983. Solidarity’s struggle for freedom and justice was an example too powerful to be repressed permanently.

Even though Jaruzelski had promised that “there will be no return to anarchy,” Poland was plagued throughout the 1980’s by labor unrest and a worsening economy. It eventually became evident that only if Solidarity were brought into consultations with the regime could Poland’s economic problems be resolved. In April, 1989, Solidarity was legalized and allowed to participate in political life. Solidarity won the parliamentary elections of that year, and in 1990 Wałęsa was elected president of Poland in a crushing defeat for the Communists. Elsewhere in the Soviet bloc, its ideals inspired political activists and human rights advocates. Within a decade after its creation, Solidarity stood in the forefront of the process by which limitations on human rights were being removed throughout Eastern Europe. Solidarity
Martial law;Poland
Poland;martial law

Further Reading

  • Ascherson, Neal. The Polish August: The Self-Limiting Revolution. 2d ed. New York: Penguin Books, 1982. Written by a British journalist who was a particularly close observer of the rise and subsequent fortunes of Solidarity. Provides excellent treatment in chapters 6-8 of the developments from September, 1980, through midsummer, 1981. Includes analysis of the imposition of martial law in December, 1981, and offers brief but insightful commentary in the “Postscript.”
  • Craig, Mary. Lech Wałęsa and His Poland. New York: Continuum, 1987. Popular biography (first published in England in 1986 under the title The Crystal Spirit) is well written although sometimes uncritical in its sympathy for its subject. Heavily dependent on other works, especially the Ash volume cited above. Presents a very good treatment of the events connected with the declaration of martial law and of Wałęsa’s time in prison and after.
  • Davies, Norman. Heart of Europe: The Past in Poland’s Present. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. Excellent account of Poland’s history, from recent times and working backward to the sixteenth century. Detailed and well written; an indispensable tool for understanding Poland. Includes illustrations, maps, bibliography, and index.
  • Garton Ash, Timothy. The Polish Revolution: Solidarity. 3d ed. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2002. Excellent chronological account by a journalist and academic who was in Gdańsk almost from the beginning in 1980 and got to know Wałęsa and those around him well. Concludes that Solidarity did not overstep its bounds and that it was the government that had aimed at suppression from the beginning. Includes bibliography.
  • Goodwyn, Lawrence. Breaking the Barrier: The Rise of Solidarity in Poland. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991. Scholarly, detailed work is controversial in its thesis that Solidarity owed less to its ties with the Workers’ Defense Committee than to the rise of trade unionism on the Baltic shores in the 1970’s. Provides considerable information about the events of 1980 and 1981 as well as reliable treatment of what led up to the imposition of martial law.
  • Persky, Stan, and Henry Flam, eds. The Solidarity Sourcebook. Vancouver, B.C.: New Star Books, 1982. Collection edited by two longtime political activists in socialist circles. Provides a number of critical documents not widely available elsewhere that trace the growth of political opposition in Poland, the rise of trade unionism, and the birth of Solidarity. Documents dealing with workers’ self-management and three crucial items touching the period of martial law are especially informative.
  • Wałęsa, Lech. A Way of Hope: An Autobiography. New York: Henry Holt, 1987. Wałęsa’s own memoir, translated from an original Polish manuscript and the published French edition, Un Chemin d’espoir. Provides a fascinating personal assessment of Wałęsa’s role in Solidarity. The chapter on martial law and his life as a private citizen after his release from prison is especially moving.
  • Weschler, Lawrence. Solidarity: Poland in the Season of Its Passion. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1982. Fine journalistic account based on a series of essays that appeared previously in Rolling Stone and The New Yorker magazines. Focuses on Poland during May, 1981, the period of September-October, 1981, and December, 1981. The author was in Warsaw when martial law was declared. Especially good for giving a feeling of what the last days of Solidarity prior to its suppression were like.

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