Polish Communist Government Arrests the Primate of Poland Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Resistance by the Roman Catholic Church to Communist repression in Poland led to the arrest of Stefan Wyszyński, the primate of Poland. Wyszyński became a symbol of defiance and was eventually released when the Church and the government reached an agreement that allowed the Church to remain independent. Events surrounding Wyszyński’s arrest would help to spark the nonviolent Solidarity movement in 1980.

Summary of Event

Following the defeat of Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin attempted to establish total control over Poland using a small native Communist Party, Communist Party, Polish Poland;postwar government led by Bołeslaw Bierut and backed by Soviet security and military forces. Poland’s new leaders, however, lacked popular legitimacy. Most Poles remained loyal to the noncommunist government in exile in London and tacitly supported the noncommunist underground resistance Civil unrest;Poland Nationalism;Poland forces, both of which sought to reestablish Poland’s independence. Christianity;repression by communist governments Roman Catholic Church;and Poland[Poland] [kw]Polish Communist Government Arrests the Primate of Poland (Sept. 25, 1953-Oct. 26, 1956) [kw]Communist Government Arrests the Primate of Poland, Polish (Sept. 25, 1953-Oct. 26, 1956) [kw]Primate of Poland, Polish Communist Government Arrests the (Sept. 25, 1953-Oct. 26, 1956) Christianity;repression by communist governments Roman Catholic Church;and Poland[Poland] [g]Europe;Sept. 25, 1953-Oct. 26, 1956: Polish Communist Government Arrests the Primate of Poland[04240] [g]Poland;Sept. 25, 1953-Oct. 26, 1956: Polish Communist Government Arrests the Primate of Poland[04240] [c]Religion, theology, and ethics;Sept. 25, 1953-Oct. 26, 1956: Polish Communist Government Arrests the Primate of Poland[04240] [c]Human rights;Sept. 25, 1953-Oct. 26, 1956: Polish Communist Government Arrests the Primate of Poland[04240] [c]Cold War;Sept. 25, 1953-Oct. 26, 1956: Polish Communist Government Arrests the Primate of Poland[04240] [c]Organizations and institutions;Sept. 25, 1953-Oct. 26, 1956: Polish Communist Government Arrests the Primate of Poland[04240] Wyszyński, Stefan Bierut, Bołeslaw Stalin, Joseph [p]Stalin, Joseph;Iron Curtain

As early as 1943, Soviet Soviet Union;and Eastern Europe[Eastern Europe] forces began to wage a campaign of covert killing against resistance forces. After 1945, this became a campaign of mass terror, with arrests, imprisonment, and executions of many of the leaders and rank and file of the anti-Nazi resistance movement. A virtual civil war raged in many parts of the country from 1944 to 1956, and Communist forces killed approximately thirty thousand people, mostly civilians, in an effort to stamp out proindependence forces. In 1947, Communist authorities rigged the national elections, effectively making even peaceful opposition illegal.

The one major institution in Poland that remained outside Communist control was the Roman Catholic Church. The Church had long been a symbol of Polish independence, especially during the nineteenth century when Poland had been partitioned by its more powerful neighbors. During World War II, the Church had again emerged as a symbol of resistance to Nazi and Soviet occupations. Thousands of priests and other religious had been imprisoned and murdered by Poland’s occupiers, including a number of bishops.

Among the most important figures in the Church in Poland in the years following the war was Stefan Wyszyński. During the war, he had served as a chaplain to a partisan unit. In 1946, he was named bishop of Lublin and in 1948 his fellow bishops elected him primate of Poland and archbishop of Gniezno—the leading bishop in the country. Wyszyński had an unbending will and a determination to preserve the freedom of the Church and to protect the rights of those facing government persecution. He soon became a major enemy of the new regime.

The Communist authorities made destruction of the Church a major goal, to be accomplished both through direct repression—arrests and murders of priests and religious and terrorizing the faithful—as well as through subversion, spying, and efforts to create dissension and division among Poland’s Catholics. A special section of the ministry of the interior was set up to conduct anti-Church activities. Despite these efforts, the Communists made few inroads with the populace in turning them against the Church’s authority.

In 1950, Wyszyński agreed to a treaty with the authorities that would have regulated church-state relations and mitigated repression. This agreement was considered highly controversial since it pledged that the Church would not support the underground movement and would remain loyal to the state. However, the government had little intention of honoring the agreement and continued its campaign against the Church.

Wyszyński tried to avoid direct conflict with the Communist authorities, preferring to emphasize the Church’s role as defender of moral values, but the continuing repression led him to speak out against the government’s effort to restrict religious freedom. The Bierut regime considered his speaking a direct challenge as well as an opportunity to break the power of the Church. On September 25, 1953, Wyszyński was arrested, placed in a prison in Grudziadz, and later transferred to house arrest in two monasteries in southern Poland. During the three-year period of his imprisonment, repression continued against the Church. More than one thousand priests were arrested, and there were frequent raids on parishes, schools, convents, and monasteries. Far from squelching Wyszyński or the Church, the arrest of Wyszyński added to his stature and the position of the Church. Wyszyński’s quiet dignity and his refusal to compromise his morals made him a hero in the eyes of ordinary Poles and an international symbol of peaceful resistance to communism.

Primate Stefan Wyszyński of Poland.

The strength of Communist repression began to falter after the death of Stalin in 1953 and the revelation of his crimes against other Communists. In 1956, the Polish Communist leader Bierut died amid growing unrest among Polish workers. In June, 1956, Communist police killed scores of workers in Poznań who had been protesting food shortages and poor working conditions. The new Communist leadership moved away from overt repression and backed away from confrontation with the Church. On October 26, the government released Wyszyński. The Polish primate and government also reached a tacit agreement in which the government would not interfere with the Church, and priests and bishops would refrain from direct criticism of the authorities.

Although the Communist authorities maintained efforts to subvert the Church and spying continued unabated, the period of relative calm after Wyszyński’s release allowed the Church to rebuild its educational, media, and pastoral activities. Priests and bishops did not directly attack the government, but they continued to draw clear distinctions between the message of the Christian Gospels and the corruption and brutality of the authorities.


Wyszyński’s arrest and subsequent release proved to be critical for the subsequent history of the Cold War in East-Central Europe. His arrest and release marked the first time Communist repression had been successfully confronted through peaceful means. Because of the primate’s strong stand in forcing the government to back down from its effort to destroy the Church, the Catholic Church in Poland emerged as the only bastion of independent thought in the entire Communist bloc. It operated the only legal periodicals and the only university outside government control. Because of this, the Church remained an institution of freedom and a beacon for those who hoped for the spread of freedom and human rights.

Wyszyński was made a cardinal in 1957 and was Poland’s greatest moral leader. He also became the mentor for the young archbishop of Kraków, Karol Josef Wojtyła. Following Wyszyński’s example, Wojtyła soon emerged as a powerful voice in his own right, both inside Poland and within the Catholic Church internationally. In 1978, Wojtyła was elected Pope John Paul II, the first non-Italian pope since the sixteenth century. Christianity;repression by communist governments Roman Catholic Church;and Poland[Poland]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Berglund, Sten, and Frank Aarebrot. The Political History of Eastern Europe in the Twentieth Century: The Struggle Between Democracy and Dictatorship. Lyme, N.H.: E. Elgar, 1997. Detailed examination of the oscillation between freedom and totalitarian regimes in pre- and postwar Eastern Europe.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Chodakiewicz, Marek Jan. “The Pope’s Secret File.” American Spectator, March, 2006. Details anti-Church efforts by the Communist regime in Poland.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Davies, Norman. God’s Playground: A History of Poland. Vol. 2, 1795 to the Present. New York: Columbia University Press, 1982. The standard history of Poland. Recommended.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kloczowski, Jerzy. A History of Polish Christianity. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000. A concise overview of the history of the Church in Poland, with a chapter on the Communists and Wyszyński.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Radzilowski, John. A Traveller’s History of Poland. Boston: Interlink, 2006. The most recent narrative history of Poland.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wyszyński, Stefan. A Freedom Within: The Prison Notes of Stefan Cardinal Wyszyński. Translated by Barbara Krzywicki-Herburt and Walter J. Ziemba. San Diego, Calif.: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1984. Wyszyński’s own diary and notes provide essential insight into the conditions of his imprisonment as well as his moral and philosophical beliefs.

Warsaw Pact Is Signed

Khrushchev Denounces Stalinist Regime

Amnesty International Is Founded

Soviet Union Invades Czechoslovakia

Brezhnev Doctrine Mandates Soviet Control of Satellite Nations

Categories: History