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Solidarnosc movement born of 1970 protests

Magdalena Gwozdz-Pallokat
December 14, 2020

In December 1970, Polish workers rose up against a food price hike. Authorities reacted brutally, killing dozens. These experiences shaped the later Solidarnosc movement, which helped to bring down the communist regime.

Poland December 1970 strike
Image: Jan Juchniewicz/ Europäisches Solidarność-Zentrum

It was a Monday in December, 10 days before Christmas. A week earlier, German Chancellor Willy Brandt had fallen to his knees in front of the Warsaw Ghetto memorial in the Polish capital and had then signed the Warsaw Treaty which acknowledged the Oder-Neisse line as the final German border with Poland.

The government made a sudden decision to increase food prices, which some observers say would eventually spell the end of Communist regime. Przemyslaw Ruchlewski, a historian at the European Solidarity Center in Gdansk, told DW that the country, under Communist party leader Wladyslaw Gomulka, was in a state of "constant deprivation” and half of people's monthly wages was going to food.

A price hike before Christmas was not likely to go down well with the population, but the Communist leadership had not expected such a change of atmosphere. They had hoped that the country would react to the "diplomatic success” of the Warsaw Treaty more positively. "Gomulka thought that this would satisfy the stomachs of the people,” explained Ruchlewski. "But why would a worker be interested in a ‘diplomatic success?'”. Moreover, he added, the fact that young people saw few prospects for the future made them react particularly strongly.

1970 Polish workers' strike
Gdansk, December 1970: The crackdown on the workers' uprising, photographed by Jan JuchniewiczImage: Jan Juchniewicz/ Europäisches Solidarność-Zentrum

At the same time, the government lowered the price for cars, vacuum cleaners and refrigerators, but there was an imbalance. "People thought: ‘We have to buy a television so that we can watch some stupid program on an empty stomach?” recalled Ruchlewski. And that's why they took to the streets. The protests began at the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk and quickly spread to other cities. At first, the authorities were unsure of how to react, but the order quickly came to nip the uprising in the bud. Some 9,000 riot police and special squads were sent in, as well as 27,000 soldiers, 550 tanks and even helicopters. "The detention centers were full,” Ruchlewski said. "Drunk riot police beat up workers, put out cigarettes on their bodies, tortured them.”

'Black Thursday'

Zbyszek Godlewski was on his way to work at the Gdynia Shipyard on December 17 – a day that would come to be known as "Black Thursday” – when he was shot dead. Protesters carried his body through the streets on a door.

According to official statistics, at least 45 people were killed across Poland and over 1,000 were injured. Ruchlewski said that the youngest victim was 15. He also said that the authorities would lie about the cause of death, saying that people had committed suicide or had died in accidents. They were buried at night without their families present. Some relatives were unable to find out where their deceased loved ones were.

Bogdan Borusewicz, who would later go on to co-found the independent trade union movement Solidarnosc (Solidarity) lost a school friend. He recalled in conversation with DW that he was studying in Lublin at the time. He was sent home with all other students. "I was the only one who got off the train in Sopot. It was already dark. There were white notices on the trees announcing a police curfew. I was really scared. Nobody was allowed to be on the streets at that time. Suddenly a shadow moved towards me. It was a woman behind a tree. She said: ‘I thought you were my son. I'm waiting for him.' I felt uneasy.”

Poland protest in 1970 in Gdynia
Gdynia: Protests against the death of Zbyszek Godlewski on December 17, 1970Image: Wikipedia/E. Peplinski

The lawyer Jan Juchniewicz was 25 at the time and could see the workers going to the shipyard from his apartment window. He had a camera and went on to become a chronicler of the protest movement. He donated his archive to the European Solidarity Centre in Gdansk five years ago. It comprises thousands of pictures, taken between 1970 and 1989. He recalls seeing riot police using clubs against a group of men and then running after a boy: "Suddenly I saw them raise their guns and shoot him. I don't know if he survived.” He says that what he saw confirmed his sense that he lived in a "suppressed country where the Soviets dictated how life should be led” but the protests gave him some short-lived hope that the situation could change. Ten years later, that hope returned.

August 1980 built on December 1970

Borusewicz was one of the principal organizers of the August 1980 strike at the Gdansk shipyard. He told DW that the strike built upon the experiences of the December 1970 "tragedy” and could not have taken place without it.”

In December, we weren't prepared at all,” the former leader of Solidarity and later Polish president Lech Walesa told DW not so long ago in an interview. He was also a worker at the shipyard in Gdansk and took part in the December 1970 protests. He remembers thinking: "This has to be over fast; people have to protect and prepare themselves.” It took 10 years to prepare but "we fought well” he told DW. 

Solidarnosc co-founders
Bogdan Borusewicz (right, in a white T-shirt), co-founder of Solidarnosc, 1980Image: fot.Zdzisław A. Fic/ Europäisches Solidarność-Zentrum

In 1980, the workers added to their economic demands a petition to erect a monument for the dead of 1970. They had learned an important lesson from December 1970, which was not to leave work: "The workers remained in the shipyards so that they could fight off attacks on their own territory,” explained Borusewicz. For him, it is ironic that Marxism-Leninism in Poland was overcome in the Lenin shipyard: "This strike was not only against those in power but against the core of the ideology and ‘rule by the workers'. It was the workers who were striking and wanted to rule,” he said. The party had thought that it had managed to deal with the "December events” 10 years earlier; it had not realized that the protests had sowed the seeds of a movement that would lead to the fall of the dictatorship.

To this day, no political leader has been held to account for their role in the killing of the protesters. In 2013, two military commanders were convicted.