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Polish United Workers' Party's newspaper Trybuna Ludu announces the declaration of martial law in Poland

Martial law in Poland (Polish: Stan wojenny w Polsce, "the state of war") refers to the period of time from December 13, 1981 to July 22, 1983, when the authoritarian government of the People's Republic of Poland drastically restricted normal life by introducing martial law in an attempt to crush political opposition to it. Thousands of opposition activists were interned without charge and as many as 100 people were killed.[1] Although martial law was lifted in 1983, many of the political prisoners were not released until the general amnesty in 1986.



The phrase in Polish is stan wojenny, which translates as "the state of war". While there was no actual war at the time, the military government led by General of the Army Wojciech Jaruzelski and the Military Council of National Salvation (Wojskowa Rada Ocalenia Narodowego, WRON) usurped for itself powers reserved for wartime, hence the name. . Appearing on the Polish television at 6 AM on December 13, 1981, general Jaruzelski said[2]:

Today I address myself to you as a soldier and as the head of the Polish government. I address to you concerning extraordinarily important questions. Our homeland is on the verge of collapse. The achievements of many generations and the Polish home that has been built up from the dust are about to turn into ruins. State structures are ceasing to function. Each day delivers new blows to the waning economy./.../
The atmosphere of conflicts, misunderstanding, hatred causes moral degradation, surpasses the limits of toleration. Strikes, the readiness to strike, actions of protest have become a norm of life. Even school youth are being drawn into this. Yesterday evening, many public buildings remained seized. The cries are voiced to physical reprisals with the 'reds', with people who have different opinions.
The cases of terror, threats and moral vendetta, of even direct violence are on the rise. A wave of impudent crimes, robberies and burglaries is running across the country. The underground business sharks' fortunes, already reaching millions, are growing. Chaos and demoralization have reached the magnitude of a catastrophe. People have reached the limit of psychological toleration. Many people are struck by despair. Not only days, but hours as well are bringing forth the all-national disaster./.../
The load of responsibility that falls on me on this dramatic moment in the Polish history is huge. It is my duty to take this responsibility - concerning the future of Poland, that my generation fought for on all the fronts of the war and for which they sacrificed the best years of their life. I declare, that today the Military Council of National Salvation has been formed. In accordance with the Constitution, the State Council has imposed martial law all over the country. I wish that everyone understood the motives of our actions. A military coup, military dictatorship is not our goal./.../
In longer perspective, none of Poland's problems can be solved with the use of violence. The Military Council of National Salvation does not replace constitutional organs of power. Its only purpose is to keep the legal balance of the country, to create guarantees that give a chance to restore order and discipline. This is the ultimate way to bring the country out of the crisis, to save the country from collapse./.../
I appeal to all the citizens. A time of heavy trials has arrived. And we have to stand those in order to prove that we are worthy of Poland.
Before all the Polish people and the whole world I would like to repeat the immortal words: Poland has not perished yet so long as we still live.

Martial law

A column of T-55 tanks

Pro-democracy movements such as Solidarity and other, smaller organisations were banned and their leaders, including Lech Wałęsa and Jas Bagniewski, detained overnight. In the morning, thousands of soldiers in military vehicles patrolled streets of every major city. A curfew was imposed, the national borders were sealed, airports were closed, and road access to main cities was restricted. Telephone lines were disconnected, mail was subject to censorship, all independent organizations were delegalized, and classes in schools and at universities were suspended.

During the initial imposition of martial law, several dozen people were killed. Commanders during the crackdown claim about a dozen fatalities, while a Polish parliamentary commission in the years 1989-1991 arrived at a figure of over 90 deaths. In the deadliest incident, nine people were killed by ZOMO paramilitary police whilst breaking a strike action in Wujek Coal Mine on December 16, 1981. People were also killed and wounded during a massive wave of demonstrations which took place on August 31, 1982.

A six-day working week was re-imposed and the mass media, public administration, health services, power stations, coal mines, sea ports, train stations, and most of the key factories were placed under military management (the employees had to follow military orders or face a court martial). As part of the crackdown, media and educational institutions underwent "verification", a process that tested each employee's attitude towards the regime and to the Solidarity movement; in the result, thousands of journalists and teachers were banned from exercising their profession. Military courts were established to bypass the normal court system, and e.g. imprison those spreading so-called "false information".[3] In attempt to prevent resistance, civilian phone conversations were regularly monitored by appointed operators.

Interestingly, at the invitation of Jaruzelski, a delegation of the Hungarian Socialist Workers' Party visited Poland between December 27 and 29, 1981. Hungarian communists provided their Polish colleagues information on crushing the 'counterrevolution' (see the article on 1956 events). Earlier in the autumn of 1981, Polish television had broadcast a special film on 1956 events in Hungary, showing scenes of rebels hanging the security officers etc[4].

Economic crisis

Food, alcohol and cigarettes rationing card

Even after martial law was lifted, a number of restrictions remained in place for several years that drastically reduced the civil liberties of people living in Poland. It also led to severe economic consequences. The ruling junta instituted major price rises (dubbed "economic reforms"), which resulted in a fall in real terms of 20% or more in the income of the population. The resulting economic crisis led to the rationing of most products and materials, including basic food.

As a consequence of economic hardship, an exodus of Polish workforce took place in 1980s. From 1981 to 1989, around 700,000 persons left the country.[5] Although the supply of food and other goods improved somewhat in 1980s, the shortages became especially severe[6].

A number of Polish people even tried to escape with hijacked passenger planes; between December 1980 and October 1983, 11 Polish flights were hijacked to Berlin Tempelhof Airport alone.[7] In another act of international terrorism, a group calling themselves the Polish Revolutionary Home Army seized the Polish Embassy in Bern, Switzerland, taking several diplomats hostage in 1982, in an apparent provocation of the Polish secret services aimed to discredit the Solidarity movement.[8]

International response

After the pacification of Huta Katowice on December 23, 1981, the United States imposed economic sanctions against the People's Republic of Poland.

In 1982 the United States suspended most favored nation trade status until 1987 and vetoed Poland's application for membership in the International Monetary Fund.[9]



Ruling of unconstitutionality

After the fall of Communism in Poland in 1989, members of a parliamentary commission determined that martial law had been imposed in clear violation of the country's constitution which had authorized the executive to declare martial law only between parliamentary sessions (at other times the decision was to be taken by the Sejm). However, the Sejm had been in session at the time when martial law was instituted. In 1992 the Sejm declared that the 1981 imposition of martial law had been unlawful and unconstitutional.

Soviet intervention debate

The instigators of the martial law, such as Wojciech Jaruzelski, argue that the army crackdown rescued Poland from a possibly disastrous military intervention of the Soviet Union, East Germany, and other Warsaw Pact countries (similar to the earlier "fraternal aid" interventions in Hungary 1956, and Czechoslovakia 1968)[10]. Public figures who supported the introduction of martial law (e.g. the right-wing emigre politician Jędrzej Giertych) often refer to that threat.

Most historians disagree, citing a lack of sources confirming such a version of events. In 2009, archive documents hinted that in a conversation Jaruzelski had with Viktor Kulikov, a Soviet military leader, Jaruzelski himself begged for Soviet intervention as his domestic control was deteriorating[11][12]. Jaruzelski responded by claiming the document was 'just another falsification'.

In present day Poland, a person's opinion in this debate is very strongly correlated with their current political affiliation,[13] with left-wing supporters acknowledging the need for martial law and right-wing supporters opposing it. According to the 2001 poll results,[13] 49% of Poles agreed that the decision was justifiable, while 27% did not. Furthermore, 61% agreed that martial law prevented a Soviet military intervention, while 57% agreed it allowed the ruling party to keep their power.

See also


Further reading

  • Leopold Labedz, Poland Under Jaruzelski: A Comprehensive Sourcebook on Poland During and After Martial Law
  • George Sanford, Military Rule in Poland: The Rebuilding of Communist Power, 1981-1983

External links


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