Academic journal article East European Quarterly

Labor's Paradise: Family, Work, and Home in Nowa Huta, Poland, 1950-1960

Academic journal article East European Quarterly

Labor's Paradise: Family, Work, and Home in Nowa Huta, Poland, 1950-1960

Article excerpt

"Nowa Huta, as the first socialist city in Poland, should serve as an example not only for our Voivode, but also for the entire nation."(1)

This is a tale of hubris, naivete, and gross callousness. In the aftermath of World War II, Poland's new communist leaders resolved to industrialize and urbanize their society quickly. Known as metalozercy (metal-eaters),(2) these persons believed that steel was the necessary foundation to a heavy industry infrastructure that in turn would help transform Poland's almost feudal and peasant culture into a Marxist and proletarian utopia. They hoped that this industrialization program would legitimize the regime economically, politically, and most important, ideologically. Yet the program was crippled from the very onset, and it ultimately failed. Overconfidence in the regime's ability to mobilize and inspire workers is one reason for this failure. Such cavalier faith that will alone could overcome fundamental obstacles (economic, infra-structural, social) also betrayed shameful naivete. Lastly, a total disregard for the human being, the worker, and the citizen, doomed the government's goal. By turning their back on the very constituency they professed to champion, these communists revealed themselves for what they were--authoritarians who were more interested in fulfilling quotas, and matching grandiose paper plans, rather than uplifting their fellow countrymen and women.

On May 17, 1947, Polish authorities formed a special commission that would explore the feasibility of constructing a massive steel plant in the country.(3) The conclusions of the study were favorable, and on February 24, 1949, Polish officials with Russian engineering experts announced their plan to build a giant steel mill within six years.(4) The site of the project would be on the periphery of Krakow, and it would be erected with a new model city named Nowa Huta (New Foundry). The name of the plant would be Huta im. Lenina (Lenin's Foundry).

Nowa Huta's locale was ideal for several reasons. Krakow could supply initial logistical support for the project's workers (transportation, housing, health, consumer, and recreation facilities). Sparsely populated and undeveloped, the terrain was flat, and the site was not on a flood plain. An excellent transportation system, and a plentiful supply of water existed too. But most important, only miles from the area an almost unlimited peasant labor pool existed.(5)

In today's Poland it is a popular belief that communist authorities selected the Nowa Huta site more out of punitive motives than for any practical reasons. Because of its subsequent damaging ecological impact, Nowa Huta is often seen as a sinister environmental polluter, whose single goal was literally to dissolve the historic city of Krakow, the acknowledged cultural, intellectual, and spiritual capital of pre-communist Poland. Nevertheless, a sizable majority of air and water born pollutants discharged at Nowa Huta avoid the city all together (prevailing winds are easterly, and Nowa Huta is northeast of Krakow; Nowa Huta also lies down river from Krakow along the Vistula) and Krakow's pollution problems stemmed more from an overall disregard by Warsaw for ecological concerns throughout the country.(6)

Nowa Huta's locale, however, was actually chosen for political reasons. In the eyes of Marxist authorities, Nowa Huta was to serve as the symbol of the new communist, proletarian, and atheist Poland.(7) Building Nowa Huta next to Krakow only served to accentuate this political goal. Communists saw Krakow as a sleepy, conservative, and Catholic bastion of reaction,(8) and what better place would there be to build a model socialist city?

   Today the ancient city is changing its social face, its psychology is
   changing, a new man is growing within it. Krakow is awaking to a productive
   life. The stagnant city of half-feudal customs, and lord and pauper
   traditions has surrendered its place to a socialist city [Nowa Huta]. … 
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