Poland’s War

Remembering martial law 25 years later

A group of men dressed as the communist militia from 1980s walk in Warsaw during the 24th anniversary of martial law, in 2005. Peter Andrews, Reuters

Last week marked the 25th anniversary of General Wojciech Jaruzelski declaring martial law in Poland. His desperate act on December 13, 1981, came in reaction to the rising tide of pro-democracy sentiment in the country, then a satellite state of the Soviet Union, and left the country in a military lockdown for more than a year. The government closed borders, banned driving, reinforced censorship and reinstated a six-day workweek. Thousands lost their jobs because they failed "verification" tests that questioned their loyalty to the regime.

To commemorate those tragic times, in which nearly 100 people were killed and tens of thousands of people were arrested, Poland held conferences, concerts and exhibitions across the country. In Wroclaw, President Lech Kaczynski attended ceremonies honoring communist opposition activists. In Warsaw, performers reenacted street clashes between riot police and supporters of Solidarity, the independent trade union that evolved into a pro-democratic political movement.

Andrzej Marciniak, a 37-year-old businessman living in Washington, DC, remembers waking up that morning and discovering the changes that had occurred overnight. Marciniak was 11-years-old, living in the northwestern town of Szczecinek where his father was the manager of a local factory.

"On the television, there was no Teleranek"—a Sunday morning kids' show—"just a screen full of snow," he recalls. "The phone had no signal, and there was an armored personnel carrier in the parking lot of our apartment complex. My parents couldn't explain what exactly had happened."

In cities across Poland, tanks full of soldiers patrolled the snow-covered streets, cutting down phone lines and arresting people without charge. Later in the day, television and radio announcements informed citizens that the country was under martial law. People were to observe a mandatory curfew and travel restrictions.

After that announcement, life resumed with a slightly different tone, says Marciniak. "When one dialed a number on the telephone, a voice would inform you that the conversation was being monitored, 'rozmowa kontrolowana.' " Russian tanks stood by, ready to roll on command.

Fierce political debates divided many families. "There were years of fighting between my grandfather and aunt Halina," Marciniak says. "He was a strong socialist believer and she a fervent Solidarity activist."

It would be years before those fights would play out in the political ring. Martial law was suspended after 12 months but wasn't officially dissolved until July 22, 1983, after which restrictions on such liberties as foreign travel and free assembly remained in place.

Conditions in Poland worsened with severe shortages of basic foods and supplies. In 1988, amid a failing economy and a crippling wave of strikes, the communist government acknowledged that talks needed to begin with Solidarity.

That following year, the government recognized the pro-democratic group and made concessions, including a more independent media and legal system. On June 4, 1989, Poland held its first free elections. Solidarity won nearly every seat it contested. The elections signified the end of Communism in Poland and sparked the fall of communism across Eastern Europe.

General Wojciech Jaruzelski, now 83, was recently hospitalized with pneumonia. He has vigorously defended his actions in the past, citing a fear of a bloody invasion from the Soviet Union—similar to its crackdown of Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968—as a factor in his decision to declare martial law.

Prosecutors dismiss this argument, telling the Associated Press last week that martial law "was really imposed in defense of the system at the time and not in the interests of Poles." They continue to build their criminal case against Jaruzelski who faces 11 years in prison if convicted.

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