WARSAW - Many people have a tendency to remember where they were and what they were doing when earth-shaking, pivotal or otherwise significant events took place. Older Pol-Ams may recall the moment they learned that Hitler had invaded Poland in September 1939 and that the Soviets had moved in from the east two weeks later. Many remember how they learned a Polish Pope had been elected in October 1978. For many, the declaration of martial law by Communist strongman Wojciech Jaruzelski 30 years ago was such a sad but memorable occasion.
It was certainly something I will never forget. On a cold and snowy Sunday morning my then nine-year-old son Leszek said his TV cartoon show hadn’t come on. Thinking our wall clock migth be wrong, I tried to ring the correct-time operator, but the phone was dead. Then, the Polish national anthem resounded from our TV set, and General Jaruzelski in his trademark dark glasses announced he had declared martial law.
“Our homeland is on the verge of collapse. Each day the collapsing economy suffers new blows. (…) Strikes, protest actions, hatred and threats against the ‘reds’ have become the norm (…) and a wave of robberies and burglaries is spreading across the country,” the Soviet-trained dictator said. His solution was a coup d’état that would clamp the country under military rule. He concluded his address, peppered with high-sounding phrases meant to portray him as the country’s savior, with the words: “Before all the Polish people and the whole world I would like to repeat the immortal words (of the Polish national anthem): ‘Poland has not yet perished so long as we still live’.”
Despite all the patriotic rhetoric, it soon became obvious that he had done only what his Soviet masters had ordered him to. Fearful of the Western economic reprisals that a Soviet invasion of Poland would have invariably triggered, Moscow, then embroiled in an unwinnable war in Afghanistan, Brezhnev had Jaruzelski do his dirty work.
This winter, the 30th anniversary of crackdown has been marked by numerous publications, TV specials and exhibitions. Around Poland there have also been re-enactments of martial-law-era tanks crashing though the gates of strike-bound mines and factories as well as of street clashes between Solidarity supporters and Jaruzelski’s security troops. Volunteers have played the role of angry anti-martial-law protesters waving Solidarity banners and chanting anti-communist slogans. Opposing them were other amateurs impersonating the hated ZOMO riot police with their truncheon, teargas, water cannon, prison vans and Soviet-made jeeps. Many of the re-enactors were not even born or were infants in 1981, and now view participation as an interesting historical adventure. But back then, it was no picnic!
Post-midnight raids led to the jailing of most Solidarity leaders to jail, and the movement’s leader Lech Wałęsa was also placed under arrest. Phone lines were cut, planes were grounded and only military radio and TV broadcasts were allowed. Major industrial plants were militarized, and civilians disobeying orders of the military junta faced a court martial. Poles not only could not leave the country but weren’t even allowed to travel beyond their hometown without special permission.
But those Solidarity leaders who had evaded capture took their struggle underground. Clandestine resistance groups committees began springing up all over the country, issuing anti-regime newsletters and even breaking into the government-controlled airwaves to broadcast radio and TV. The country’s Catholic churches, whose right of sanctuary even the godless regime respected, became the hubs of a pro-Solidarity counter-culture which kept the Polish spirit alive through uncensored lectures, concerts, plays and art exhibitions.
As time dragged on, it turned out that the emergency measures Jaruzelski had imposed to shore up the teetering economy were no match for Western economic sanctions. The 1983 pilgrimage to Poland by Pope John Paul gave Poles new hope, and the murder of popular Solidarity priest Father Jerzy Popiełuszko by the communist secret police permanently tarnished the regime’s image. Fresh strike waves forced the regime to the bargaining table where it agreed to reinstate Solidarity and allow partially free elections.
Solidarity’s 1989 election victory surprised both its supporters and the foundering regime, leading to the country’s first non-communist post-war government. Poland’s example became contagious, triggering the domino-effect collapse of one communist regime after another, including the dismantling of the Berlin Wall. A year later, the USSR, the “Evil Empire” in the words of President Ronald Reagan, officially ceased to exist.
As it had in 1241, when the armies of Bolesław the Pious stopped the Mongolian thrust into western Europe, in 1683, when King Jan Sobieski crushed the Turks at Vienna and in 1921, when the Bolshevik threat to Europe was smashed at the gates of Warsaw, Poland had again changed the course of world history. The peaceful Solidarity of 1980-1981 and its resurgence in 1988-1989 following the martial-law episode had led to the end of cold war, the East-West arms race and the division of Europe into two hostile camps.