Poland’s deep divide

40 years ago, martial law was imposed in Poland and the first free trade union in the "Eastern Bloc", "Solidarnosc", was banned
solidarnosc polonia


On 13 December 1981, martial law was imposed in Poland and the first independent trade union in the communist part of Europe, "NSZZ Solidarnosc", with over ten million members, was forcibly dissolved by its own army. Dozens of people were killed or injured in violent actions, tens of thousands of officials - including Solidarnosc leader Lech Walesa, later Nobel Peace Prize winner - were arrested. 

General Wojciech Jaruzelski, then also prime minister and head of the Communist Party, had planned the imposition of martial law months before to break the growing power of the free trade union. Whether he was forced to do so by the Kremlin remained unclear

As a reporter for Austrian magazine „profil“, I experienced the imposition of martial law as the only journalist from Austria present in Warsaw. The then profil editor-in-chief Peter-Michael Lingens feared an invasion by Soviet troops like in 1956 in Hungary, 1968 in the CSSR or 1979 in Afghanistan and gave instructions that a profil reporter had to be present in Poland at all times. He was to be proved right, but it was the Polish army that destroyed the hopes of many Poles for a life in freedom and dignity - as also preached by the Polish Pope John Paul II. 

On this freezing Sunday, as in the whole country, armoured cars were parked in important places in the capital. Army troops and units of the ZOMO special police patrolled the streets. Demonstrators gathered in front of the Solidarnosc headquarters on Mokotowska Street, which had been sealed off by the police. From the balcony of a flat I captured the scene with my camera. I had one of these slides smuggled to Vienna. It ended up on the covers of "TIME" magazine, "Paris Match", "Espresso" and other magazines. 

revistas time paris match polonia

A leaden period for Poland began. It was not until the beginning of 1989 that the CP regime, facing economic bankruptcy, sat down with the Solidarnosc functionaries at the "round table", where a peaceful power-sharing agreement was reached. Partly free parliamentary elections were held in June 1989. The Catholic intellectual Tadeusz Mazowiecki formed a government. The Nobel Peace Prize winner Lech Walesa was elected president in 1990.  

The old split in the Solidarnosc movement led to two parties: The more left-liberal Civic Forum (PO) and the increasingly right-wing authoritarian PiS (Law and Justice) party led by the Kaczynski twins. The PiS party under Jaroslaw Kaczynski, which came to power in 2016, today leads an arch-conservative course against the EU, which is also anti-Semitic and -with the support of the extremely conservative Catholic church leadership- directed against the LGTBQ+ community. Only this year, the already strict abortion law in Poland was further tightened, triggering mass protests.  

There was a split between the majority liberal-ruled cities and the countryside, where the PiS continues to dominate. During demonstrations against the government, the unofficial anthem of "Solidarnosc", the song "Mury" (Walls) about the collapse of the old world, could be heard again: 

The Polish government's many conflicts with the EU leadership over undue interference in the judiciary escalated last October. The Polish Constitutional Court, composed of judges loyal to PiS, declared two articles in the EU treaties incompatible with Polish fundamental law. This undermined an EU principle that EU law takes precedence over national law.  

In the meantime, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) has imposed bending penalties on Poland. For example, Poland must pay a fine of one million euros for every day that the controversial Judicial Disciplinary Board, as demanded by the EU, is not dissolved. But the government in Warsaw has so far refused to pay.  

The EU Commission has already frozen the share of Corona reconstruction aid reserved for Poland - 20 billion euros in grants and billions more in loans. And in the next step, the subsidies for Poland from the normal EU budget - 12 billion euros net annually - could also be stopped if the PiS government does not give in. Poland is even talking about leaving the EU. So far, the population's approval of the EU has been particularly high in Poland.  

The Polish lawyer and member of a German-Polish foundation for reconciliation, Pawel Kuglarz, sees the origin of the current conflict in the missed purge of communist judges and prosecutors after 1989. „In addition to economic, political and legal reforms, the question of an honest reckoning with the communist legacy was of great importance. The basis for a real coming to terms with the past is decommunisation, lustration, i.e. the examination of collaboration with the secret services, criminal rehabilitation and punishment of the perpetrators. This chance was missed. And when the PiS-government started the purge quite late, the EU saw it as a breach of the independent judiciary." 

Poland's head of government, Mateusz Morawiecki, does not want to give in and has threatened the EU. Withholding promised funds for his country could trigger a "Third World War"