The State against Society: Political Crises and Their Aftermath in East Central Europe

By Grzegorz Ekiert | Go to book overview
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CHAPTER 9
Poland under Martial Law and After

ON THE NIGHT of December 12–13, 1981, the most extensive internal military operation in Polish history began. Shortly after mid-night, thousands of Solidarity's leaders and advisers were arrested, the union's headquarters were seized, and the country's borders closed. All domestic and international communication networks were blocked, and the troops entered cities and took control of all important installations in the country. In retrospect, it is hard to resist a judgment that it was an almost perfectly executed repressive action. Large scale preparations lasting for months were kept secret successfully, and neither the Solidarity movement nor society at large was really prepared for what occurred. One of the most senior leaders of Solidarity, Zbigniew Bujak, later said: “That they could impose martial law never occurred to me, particularly as none of our advisers had been able to say firmly whether or not this was possible. The only person I know who foresaw a military dictatorship was Wiktor Kulerski. But he kept quiet about it because he didn't want—as he put it—to go around sowing defeatism.” 1

The repressive action launched by the Polish party-state has several distinctive features. First of all, in contrast to the other two cases, which involved a full-scale military invasion by the Soviet Union, this action was an internal military operation carried on exclusively by Polish military and police units and directed by Polish commanders. Although there is no doubt that the Soviets supported the operation and were involved in its preparation and had serious contingency plans for the military invasion, 2 it was the Polish party-state that delivered the blow that destroyed Solidarity. Moreover, following the Soviet military intervention in both Hungary and Czechoslovakia, there was an extended period of internal chaos that passed before the resistance was effectively eliminated and the party-state was able to fully recover its strength and control over its internal institutional structures and the political space. Yet no more than two weeks passed before the Polish state became the sole master of the country's political situation. Most of the strikes were crushed during the first four days of martial law, and on December 28 the last surviving strike, in the coal mine Piast, was declared over.

Despite its startling short-term success, the imposition of martial law did not break the political stalemate between the party-state elites and various forces within society that emerged during the Solidarity period. It also did not improve the state's capacity to deal with Poland's economic crisis. With the passage of time it became increasingly clear that the party-state's initial success in crushing the independent organizations was not followed by a consistent demobilization process through which the Polish party-state

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