The events of December 1970 that took place in Poland are some of the most tragic and barbaric events under the ‘Workers’ Paradise’ communist regime. Once again, two opposing forces, the workers and those who supposedly represented them faced each other. The events were led in by the gradually worsening economic and social situation. None of the lauded 5 year plans have met their goals and the people were getting poorer. The industry was lagging behind Western Europe, agriculture was failing due to government interference and a lack of free market forces. All of this coupled with poor quality of service and a lack of new housing led to an explosion of the already simmering unhappiness among the populace.
This was most evident in the coastal regions and specifically Gdansk. Mass strikes and demonstrations erupted. They were initiated on December 14th by a massive strike in the Gdansk Shipyards (Stocznia Gdanska) where the crews formed a demonstration of thousands of workers and marched to the regional offices of the Communist Party (PZPR). The march led to skirmishes with People’s Militia units. These lasted till late in the evening and brought about the first casualties. The Trójmiasto (Gdansk, Gdynia and Sopot) agglomeration was cut off from the rest of the country with a full telecommunications barrier. Next day the strikes evolved and now the Port Pólnocny (Gdansk Harbour) and Gdanska Stocznia Remontowa (Gdansk Ship Renovation Yard) were involved. The representatives of the workers from the various plants formed a unified strike committee. They presented a postulate, which included economic reform issues, freedom of religion and freedom of speech as well as pluralism. The authorities refused to enter into negotiations.
Once again a skirmish erupted. This time the regional offices of the Communist Party were burnt down. A the same time Wladyslaw Gomulka, who at the time was the first secretary of the Communist Party, authorized the use of firearms in a secret meeting. The Trójmiasto agglomeration was surrounded by the army. Three units entered the battle against the unarmed strikers. They were led by: General Grzegorz Korczynski, General Zenon Kliszka and General Franciszek Szlachcic. Lack of cooperation and specifically the radically different points of view on how to resolve the situation between vice prime minister Stanislaw Kociolek and Zenon Kliszka (who preached a forceful resolution) led to the Gdynia massacre on December 17th. The workers heading towards the shipyard were greeted by a barrage of fire from the stationed troops. The battles spread around town. In an act of solidarity the Szczecin Shipyard (370 km to the west of Gdansk) and a number of other plants joined in the strike. The coastal towns involved were: Elblag, Slupsk and Tczew. Smaller scale strikes also erupted in Warsaw, Wroclaw (Breslau), Bialystok and Nysa. A major altercation arose in Szczecin where the protesters set fire to the regional party offices. After December 18th the strikes, brutally beat down, started to fade. The fights led to a serious number of casualties, the number of which is difficult to determine. Official reports claimed 45 dead and 1165 wounded, although these are almost certainly on the low side. A further 3 thousand people were arrested.
The Communists accused “reactionary elements, hooligans and enemies of socialism as well as those of Polish People’s Republic” as the instigators of the strikes. In their traditional stance they did not bother and look into the real causes of the unease. The high ranking party officials reshuffled soon after the strikes with some ‘backstage’ help from the Soviets. On December 18th 1970 the Political Office got a letter from the USSR government, in which they advised their "Polish friends" to solve the problem by political methods, not by terror. It meant that Gomulka had lost the USSR's support. He had to resign. Gomulka was replaced by Edward Gierek as party secretary on December 20th. The despised Jozef Cyrankiewicz stepped down and was replaced by Piotr Jaroszewicz. Some other apparatchiks were replaced by cronies of the new party leadership. Not surprisingly none of those responsible for the murder of innocent civilians had to face any form of charges and no responsible people were ever punished.
The events of 1970 had left a dark mark on the Polish psyche. It revealed the true nature of the workers’ paradise and communism i.e. repression at any price. Many symbols of the altercations remain to this day. The parish church in the Gdansk Wrzeszcz neighbourhood where I grew up sports a plain birch cross carried by three of the strikers who were ruthlessly shot down by the army. I am not a churchgoer, every time I am in Gdansk however I visit that church and remind myself of the effect socialism and communism had on life in Poland back then and hope that people will not be forced into such a system ever again.
The 1970 events touched me personally as well, even though I was only born in 1976. My father was in prison for a month for his participation in the strikes. He was part of a university students’ solidarity committee at the time. Two of my uncles were in the same committee and were both imprisoned as well. My grandfather was trailed by the secret police for years for his support of the strikers.
As to the symbols like the wooden cross, there are many other such symbols around. One of the most poignant is the Three Crosses monument in front of the Gdansk Shipyard. Signifying a total turnaround in Polish political realities this monument was erected soon after the revolutionary strikes of 1980, which led to the formation of Solidarity. The monument was erected many years before the fall of communism. Two other important symbols/documents describing Polish reality in the 1950s, 1970s and around the time of the 1980 strikes are the two movies by Oscar winning director Andrzej Wajda, ‘Man of Marble’ (Czlowiek z Marmuru) and ‘Man of Iron’ (Czlowiek z Zelaza). The latter was released only a year after the 1980 strikes, they both show the ridiculous aspects of life in Communist Poland and the events leading up to the 1970 strikes. Amazingly they managed to make a very anti Communist statement and be released into public circulation without too much censorship. Artists in communist Poland had to use all kinds of tricks and word plays to evade the formalities of censorship, but that’s another node.