We’ve just passed the anniversary of the imposition of martial law in Poland. This was a controversial act by the Polish Communist leader in Poland at the time, General Jaruzelski. It’s controversial because Jaruzelski claims he was trying to prevent a Soviet invasion of the sort inflicted on Hungary and Czechoslovakia in the previous 25 years, in the face of increasing unrest on the streets – “a lesser evil”, as he put it. Critics say this is nonsense – he just wished to clamp down on the inexorable rise of Lech Walesa’s Solidarity movement, which was infiltrating even Communist ranks. They point to recent evidence that Jaruzelski would actually have preferred it if the Soviets had intervened directly.
My wife Marzena remembers the day well, despite being a youngster. At her father’s name day celebrations, a friend rushed in and switched on the TV. A stern-faced man in military uniform – unusual in itself – read out the news: martial law had been declared. There would be a nightly curfew. High spirits at the party rapidly dissipated, and guests scuttled hime to beat the curfew.
In the ensuing 18 months of martial law, Marzena remembers restrictions on movement that prevented her family, for example, visiting nextdoor counties to find additional food over and above the strict rations (apparently some counties were better stocked than others).
But the impact was much more serious than this. Around 100 Poles were killed, including 9 miners at a strike at the Wujek coal mine shortly after martial law was declared, and 1000s imprisoned as the authorities attempted to quell social and political unrest in the face of severe and worsening economic conditions. Many historians say that, ultimately, it was these poor economic conditions, dating back to the 1970s, that spelt the beginning of the end of Communism in Poland and thereafter, in a domino effect, the whole Soviet bloc.
It’s instructive for us in the West to remember martial law in Poland, and what the Poles went through. Because it wasn’t exactly a foreign invasion, as in other Communist states (though Poland was under the Soviet yoke), perhaps we don’t regard the event quite as we should. But it must have been terrifying to live through – seeing tanks on the streets, for example – as well as the not knowing when it would end. You can easily enough find heartbreaking stories on the internet from Poles who suffered, for example, from limited access to healthcare due to movement restrictions and a tightening of public services during martial law.
So, never forget, but on the other hand just one more reminder – despite all its present challenges – of how incredibly far Poland has travelled since then, and in a relatively short space of time.