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The Polish 1968 political crisis (also known in Polish as 'March 1968' or 'March events', Polish: Marzec 1968 or wydarzenia marcowe) describes the major student and intellectual protests against the communist government of the People's Republic of Poland, their repression by the security services, and the concurrent "anti-Zionist" campaign waged as a reaction to the political crisis by the Polish government. The protests coincided with the events of Prague spring in neighboring Czechoslovakia.

The wave of antisemitism instigated by the authorities of the People's Republic of Poland as part of the "anti-Zionist" campaign, served as a tactic to divert public attention from the political crisis in the country and resulted in the final mass flight of Jews from Poland. Prior to the beginning of the campaign, the People's Republic had 40,000 Jews; within a few years, fewer than 5,000 remained. The episode was especially traumatic as those forced to leave saw themselves as Poles.




Protest in 1968 Europe

An escalating wave of protest and dissent in Czechoslovakia marked the highpoint of a broader series of dissident social mobilization. The protests of the workers within the communist framework seemed to recall the 1956 protests in Poland. Numerous events of protest and revolt, especially among students reverberated across the continent in 1968, but many followed rather than preceded the Polish crisis.

A growing crisis in Communist Party control over universities, the literary community and intellectuals more generally marked the mid-1960s. Among those persecuted for their political activism on campus were Jacek Kuron and Adam Michnik.

Antisemitism in the People's Republic of Poland

The relationship between the two groups had a long and complex history.[1] Most Jewish Poles were killed by German Nazis during the Holocaust. For the survivors, returning to life as it had been before the Holocaust was impossible. Jewish communities no longer existed in Poland. When people tried to return to their homes from camps or hiding places, they found that, in many cases, their homes had been looted or taken over by others who were not happy to see survivors return.

Soon after the end of the Second World War, Jews began to leave Poland. The exodus took place in stages. After the war, the vast majority of survivors left for several reasons. Many left simply because they did not want to live in a communist country. Some left because the refusal of the Communist regime to return prewar property. Others did not wish to rebuild their lives in the places where their families were murdered. Yet others wanted to go to British Mandate of Palestine, which soon became Israel. Some of the survivors had relatives abroad.

During the 1967 Six-Day War between Israel, Egypt, Jordan and Syria, Israel conquered the Sinai Peninsula, Gaza Strip, West Bank, and the Golan Heights. Israel's relations with the Eastern Bloc drastically deteriorated. Members of the international community, including the Soviet Union, condemned Israel for "aggression" and occupation. This continued a Soviet party line which attacked "Zionism" and Israel and backed the Arab states. Władysław Gomułka, leader of the ruling Communist Polish United Workers' Party (PUWK), saw an opportunity to both please Moscow by taking an anti-Israel stance, and to introduce terror among the people. In Poland before the Holocaust, Jews had been a large minority, so it was often difficult for Poles to deny having Jewish links and predecessors; for that reason, Anti-semitism became a terror tool — any Pole could be accused of Zionism.

In 1965, the Soviet Politburo had decided to ease Jews out of executive positions and other jobs by 1970, and the government in Poland had taken action through making Tadeusz Walichnowski, an "anti-Zionist expert," the head of the minorities branch of the government, and by moving that department from social services to counter-intelligence. In the words of Polish scholar Wlodzimierz Rozenbaum:

The Six-Day War in the Middle East started at the right time in view of the domestic developments in Communist Poland. It provided Gomułka with an opportunity 'to kill several birds with one stone': he could use an "anti-Zionist" policy to undercut the appeal of the liberal wing of the PUWP; he could bring forward the Jewish issue to weaken the support for the nationalist faction and make his own position even stronger; he could through this policy participate in a larger effort by the Warsaw Pact countries; and the Jewish question could be solved once and for all. To Gomułka's nationalist challengers, the war in the Middle East and its international and domestic implications provided - what seemed at the time - a very tempting opportunity to test his strength and to build a meaningful power base for the future. National Convention of the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies in Atlanta, Ga., 8-11 October 1975.

Faced by an underground opposition movement, the government ordered that anti-Israel and anti-Zionist propaganda be increased, and on June 19, 1967 PM gave a speech calling the Jews a "fifth column,"[2] suggesting they should be transferred to Israel. The Polish Communist party began a process to purge "Zionist" (Jewish) elements, primarily aimed at liberal opposition movement. Many Poles (irrespective of actual faith) were accused of being Zionists and expelled from the party.

Polish student and intellectual protest

In January, the communist government banned the performance of a play by Adam Mickiewicz, (Dziady, written in 1824) and directed by Kazimierz Dejmek at the Polish Theatre in Warsaw, on the grounds that it contained Russophobic and "anti-socialist" references. The play had been performed 14 times, the last on January 30. Dejmek was expelled from the Communist Party and later fired from the National Theatre.[1]

The Warsaw Writers' Union condemned the ban on March 2, followed by the Actors' Union. A crowd of some 1,500 students protesting at Warsaw University on March 8 was met by attacks. Within four days, protests spread to Kraków, Lublin, Gliwice, Wrocław, Gdańsk, Poznań, and Łódź. Bands of Communist party "worker-squads" attacked the students, followed by police in Warsaw and Lublin. Mass student strikes took place in Wrocław on March 14-16, Kraków on March 14-20, and Opole. A call for a general strike was issued from Warsaw on March 13. A hardline speech by Władysław Gomułka on March 19 cut off the possibility of negotiation. Further student protests, strikes and occupations were met with the mass expulsion of thousands of participants. National coordination by the students was attempted through a March 25 meeting in Wrocław; most of its attendees were jailed by the end of April. At least 2,725 people were arrested for participating. According to internal government reports, the suppression was generally effective, although students were able to disrupt May Day ceremonies in Wroclaw.[3]

To stir the attention of general public from the Student movement, which had a liberal background and was centred around freedom of speech for intellectuals and artists, the communist party came up with the idea of Nazi provenance. A leader of the hardline faction inside the Party, blamed the student riot on "Zionists" and used this affair as a pretext to launch a larger anti-Semitic campaign (although the expression "anti-Zionist" was officially used) to target the Jews, following on the earlier anti-Zionist movements. In fact, despite the participation of a mix of Christian and Jewish Polish student activists in the protests, the relation of the protesting to Zionism was mixed if not negative. The national strike call from Warsaw opposed both anti-Semitism and Zionism.[4] A banner hung at a Rzeszow high school on April 27 read: "We hail our Zionist comrades."[3]

Antisemitic purges

Dariusz Stola of the Institute of Political Studies, Polish Academy of Sciences, called the events that followed in 1967 and 1968 as an anti-Semitic "massive hate campaign," clearly aimed at Polish Jews, despite the use of the word Zionists:

The term “anti-Zionist campaign” is misleading in two ways, since the campaign began as an anti-Israeli policy but quickly turned into an anti-Jewish campaign, and this evident anti-Jewish character remained its distinctive feature. Firstly, the words Zionism and Zionist, were a substitute and code-name for “Jew” and “Jewish.” Secondly, “Zionist” signified Jew even if the person called Zionist was not Jewish.([2])

More intense official government persecution followed, in the words of The YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe (Yale University Press): "The Interior Ministry compiled a card index of all Polish citizens of Jewish origin, even those who had been detached from organized Jewish life for generations. Jews were removed from jobs in public service, including from teaching positions in schools and universities. Pressure was placed upon them to leave the country by bureaucratic actions aimed at undermining their sources of livelihood and sometimes even by physical brutality."(PDF)

The communist government, faced by massive anti-Soviet opposition of Poles, used hate propaganda to divide the nation. The campaign equated Jewish origins with Zionist sympathies and thus disloyalty to Poland. Jewish organizations were shut down, Yiddish was banned and anti-Semitic slogans were used in rallies.

By 1968, most of the “culturally Jewish” Jews in Poland had already emigrated. The 40,000 or so who remained were well assimilated into Polish society. Nonetheless, they became the center of an organized campaign to equate Jewish origins with Zionist sympathies and thus disloyalty to Poland. Approximately 20,000 Jews lost their jobs and had to emigrate. The campaign, despite being ostensibly directed at Jews who had held office during the Stalin era and their families, affected most of the remaining Polish Jews, regardless of background.


There were several results of these March 1968 events.

The communist government reacted in several ways to the March events. One was an official approval for demonstrating Polish national feelings, including the scaling down of official criticism of the prewar Polish regime, and of Poles who had fought in the anti-Communist wartime resistance movement, the Armia Krajowa. The second was the complete alienation of the regime from the leftist intelligentsia, who were disgusted at the official promotion of anti-Semitism. Many Polish intellectuals opposed the campaign, some openly, and Moczar's security apparatus became as hated as Berman's had been. The third was the founding by Polish Emigrants to the West of organizations that encouraged opposition within Poland.

Inside Poland the alienation of the leftist intelligentsia had a long afterlife, and eventually contributed to the downfall of the PZPR dictatorship. Jacek Kuroń, twice a PZPR member and imprisoned for his role in the events, in particular, became a highly effective adviser of the independent workers' movement in Poland. More generally the events - preceded by those in 1956 and followed by 1970, 1976 and then 1980, showed that Poland, with its strong nationalist traditions and a civil society, especially the Church, that had never been fully repressed, was the weakest element in the Eastern Bloc.

The anti-Semitic campaign damaged Poland's reputation abroad, particularly in the United States. Despite worldwide condemnation of the March 1968 events, for many years the Communist government did not admit the anti-Semitic nature of the anti-Zionist campaign, though some newspapers were allowed to publish critical articles. Finally, in 1988, the Polish Communist government officially acknowledged that the events were anti-Semitic, although they avoided taking full responsibility, calling them "political mistakes". After the fall of the Communist government, the Sejm issued an official condemnation of the anti-Semitism of the March 1968 events in 1998. In 2000, President Aleksander Kwaśniewski gave his own apology for the event in front of a group of Jewish students "as the president of Poland and as a Pole."

See also



  1. ^ A Complicated Coexistence. Central Europe Review, January 2000.
  2. ^ The Jewish Question. Time August 18, 1967
  3. ^ a b Andrzej Friszke, "The March 1968 Protest Movement in Light of Ministry of Interior Reports to the Party Leadership," Intermarium 1:1 (1997 [translated from Polish]; original 1994).
  4. ^ George Katsiaficas, The Imagination of the New Left: A Global Analysis of 1968, pp. 66-70.

External links


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