THE process by which the grip of Stalinism on Poland's national life was gradually loosened is usually known as 'the thaw', after the novel of that name which was published by the Soviet author, Ilya Ehrenburg in May 1954. It lasted about three years and culminated in the return of Gomułka to power in October 1956, but in some fields there were indications of change before the autumn of 1953, and in others little of significance occurred until the following year. The first signals for action came from the Soviet Union. For Poles to have taken the initiative would have been highly dangerous, and any movements for freedom originating with them would almost certainly have been doomed to failure. But once Soviet pretexts had been provided, the Polish people were not content to accept any external pace-setter and often took the lead themselves, surprising Moscow by their vitality and determination.
Four events and their consequences acted as pretexts. Early in March 1953, Stalin died, and the Presidium of the CPSU denounced one-man leadership and the 'cult of personality', declaring that in future the Soviet Union would be governed in accordance with the principle of 'collective leadership'. This dispersed the aura of infallibility which had surrounded the Stalinist system for years. Secondly, later in the same year Beria, who a few months before had been both head of the security service and Minister of the Interior, was done to death in mysterious circumstances. His fall was followed by the reduction and cleansing of the Security Police, the release of a large number of prisoners from forced-labour camps, and the announcement that the rule of law would henceforth be respected.1 Thirdly, in May 1955, Khrushchev went to Belgrade, publicly repudiated the Soviet Union's previous policy towards Yugoslavia, and made his peace with Tito; a development of____________________