THE POLISH WAY OF SHOW TRIALS
"No show trials of Polish communists were staged," wrote Zbigniew Brzezinski in his scholarly study The Soviet Bloc, 1 a statement that has been repeated in many academic and other works about this period. The statement is incorrect. There were many bloody show trials in Poland, the difference in the Polish experience being that the trial that was intended to be the culmination of the process, that of Wladislaw Gomułka, could be averted. Poland was not an exception to the rule, but a variation of it, a unique and special case.
Poland was the only satellite state in which the Stalinist purge began at the very top, with the fall of the secretary-general of the communist party. This represented a deviation from the usual plan prescribed by Beria, to begin at the second or third ranks of party leaders and then expand the terror into both higher and lower echelons, thus engulfing wider and wider circles of officials. Those at the very top of the satellite regimes, Rákosi, Ulbricht, Gottwald, Gheorghiu-Dej, and even Dimitrov, remained untouched.
Gomułka case was an exception to this formula. In the early summer of 1948, at the height of the conflict with the Yugoslav party, he was seen by Stalin as a menace. Gomułka was no Tito; he never questioned Soviet hegemony in Eastern Europe, but he had his own ideas about Poland's place in the structure. To begin the purge with him was, from Stalin's point of view, an absolute necessity, but given certain facts about the histories of both Poland and its communist party, it became a source of failure as well.
When the ax was directed at the head of the party, the move triggered within the other party leaders, like an experiment in Pavlovian conditioned reflex, a defense mechanism aimed at self-preservation. They felt that if they were to remain alive, the blow must be blunted, diverted. They struck out right and left, but tried to preserve the center; they attempted to postpone the inevitable in a subtle, cunning way, inherited from their forefathers. After five years of procrastination, the evasive maneuvers were no longer necessary. Stalin's death absolved them from trying and executing Gomułka. They saved him, however, at the price of sacrificing hundreds of lower ranked communists, tortured to