In March of 1968, student demonstrations, or rather – civil demonstrations, initiated by university students, spread throughout all university centers and the entire Polish academic community.
But it would be fictitious to limit the massive 1968 movement in Poland opposing Communism only, or even mainly, to universities. This is not because we would be excluding numerous participants like high school students, workers, and provincial youth, whose involvement was massive and often crucial. But above all, by doing so we would fall into the Communists’ trap of repeating false conclusions of what the March revolt really was in the history of the Polish path to independence.
Students, workers, demonstrations
In the militia (MO, communist police) report on the Warsaw demonstration of March 11, 1968, it was emphasized that the main accomplices in the street fights were young people from Warsaw suburbs, includig Zielonka, Marki, Legionowo, Ursus and Piastów, who came in numbers to support the students. As reported by witnesses, on that day, for several hours in the afternoon, the young demonstrators successfully repelled the attacks of the MO and the special brigade of ZOMO (motorized police units trained to fight street demonstrations) nick named “Goledzinowcy” and was able to control the entire space of Krakowskie Przedmieście Street from the St. Cross Church all the way to Karowa Street. Militia statistics confirmed that most of the demonstrators arrested at that time were young people from the suburbs of Warsaw. I remember a young boy whom I met in a prison on Rakowiecka Street in May. He was 16-17 years old at that time and he started to paint a sign “we will avenge Katyn” on the wall or street fence in Legionowo. He wrote “Katyn av”¹ and wasn’t able to finish because he was detained, and later sentenced to three years in jail by the Communist court for this “criminal act”. This means that his sentence was greatly worse than most students, the organizers of March demonstrations.
We still do not know much about the actual scale of the events of March 1968, unfortunately the attention of journalists focuses on the speculations concerning Kremlin’s involvement. Meanwhile, the information about the Warsaw rally of March 8 and the student appeal demanding democracy and independence for Poland spread quickly throughout the country. Over the next month, rallies and mass demonstrations were held in cities with universities. This included not only the 15 largest cities with major universities, but also smaller municipalities, where the demonstrations were initiated at secondary schools, as well as centers for vocational and post-graduate education. In addition to students, young working class people participated in these demonstrations, and a broad number of Poles across all social groups spontaneously showed their support and sympathy. This backing was shown for example by offering baskets of food and fruit put up by Varsovians at the university gate and in the assembly hall of the Warsaw University of Technology, and by the statements of solidarity directed towards young people wearing student hats from co-passengers on trams and buses. In Warsaw, the demonstrations and rallies consisted of tens of thousands of participants, but there was also a big demonstration on March 15 in Gdańsk, attended by over 20,000 people protesting against the communist regime. Further, several thousand demonstrators also marched on the streets of Krakow and Wroclaw. From a historical perspective, the scale of this March uprising could only be compared to that of the “Great August” twelve years later.
The university students initiated these demonstrations, but among those participating the largest numbers included schoolchildren and workers. And it could be that they were the same workers who in the main TV news program were shown gloomily standing at party rallies in their workplaces under banners which read “Zionists to Zion” or even “Zionists to Siam” …
at the rallies and demonstrations held by the people, calls were made for the release of imprisoned colleagues, for democracy and freedom of speech, and for what was most important – Polish independence
The communist Newspeak was used at assemblies organized by the Communist party and trade unions, so they talked about the “Zionists”, “comrade Wiesław” and “PZPR – as the leading force of the nation”. However, at the rallies and demonstrations held by the people, calls were made for the release of imprisoned colleagues, for democracy and freedom of speech, and for what was most important – Polish independence. Since many members of the spontaneously formed student committees came from social groups that only started to learn Polish national traditions – they sung songs like “Gaudeamus igitur” or the Polish Anthem – Dąbrowski’s Mazurka, but sometimes also the “Internationale”. Thus, although the March protest was initiated by university student groups, it quickly became a mass movement involving hundreds of thousands of young people across Poland. If there was a sociological gauge of participation in these demonstrations, it was not an affiliation to a certain “social class” or profession, but, rather it was related to age, and therefore generational. This perspective is also reflected in pure numbers: according to the information from the General Prosecutor’s Office, on June 6, 1968, during the March rallies, demonstrations, and street fighting over 2,700 people were detained, including 359 students. Nearly 700 people, including 143 students, were placed in front of special councils² . Legal inquests were initiated against 540 people, including 207 students. Also, 262 people were indicted in courts, including 98 students and faculty.
So, who were the others? We know only with certainty that they were not students or university employees. We do not know, however, which social groups they came from or what induced them to participate in street fights and demonstrations. The statistics from Warsaw, cited above, support an assumption that they were young workers, farmers (or rather suburban fruit farm workers), and maybe even students of provincial high schools. The above data shows a fundamentally different sociological perspective of the March protests than the so-called ‘narrative’, or media stories, which focused on presenting an isolated, student-intellectual March `68 – in accordance with the tacit approval of the contemporary elite of the new, post-war communist intelligentsia. This narrative was also the source of political analyses that, over the years, were persistently conveyed to guide public opinion, which was also supported by literary and film content: that workers did not support students in March ’68, that students did not support workers in December ’70, and that only in 1976 these groups joined forces to protest against the communist rule in Poland and initiated effective actions that resulted in the creation KOR (Workers’ Defense Committee), the Solidarity trade union and, in the end, the regaining of Polish independence. This perspective on the events of March ’68 was also the result of the shock caused by massive repressions against students and a certain isolation of this social group. Thousands of students were permanently expelled from universities, while others had to seek re-admission. Many of those relegated students were drafted into communist military service. The faculties of the universities most active in the protests were dissolved and the term of studies was shortened to four years. This led to the extraordinary promotion procedures which were established for several hundred activists of the communist party, PZPR. These people were promoted under such measures were later called the “March Professors“. These harsh retributions stunned students and caused their further isolation.
The university students appealed to workers for support, but the March revolt was not preceded by any major information or political work among other groups. While there were various discussions and formation groups dealing with current political events in intellectual circles (including students) for a long time before March `68, such work among workers or farmers was not initiated. Also, the student activities were more conversational than organizational. The most visible student group, so-called “commandos”, or revisionist youth centered around Jacek Kuroń and Karol Modzelewski, did not go beyond imagination within the Communist reform movement (e.g. socialism with a “human face”, the Prague Spring, the revolt of Paris students, Rudi Dutschke, or Red Army Faction. Their organizational concepts were limited to the preparation of a rally at the University of Warsaw and the political action did not extend beyond talks with party revisionists, opposition writers, and the Znak representatives in Polish Parliament, Sejm. In short, they were the extension of the remnants of the October ’56 pluralism in the Communist apparatus and they did not imagine the possibility of independent activism. This is probably why they did not think about coordinating activities in the whole country, about creating permanent organization and political representation, and about long-term activities that would go beyond ad hoc manifestations. In turn, the national and independence oriented groups (e.g. National League, Ruch organization, Independence League) did not have any socio-political methods or activities and focused on formation work relying on the leadership of the Church and the real spiritual Interrex, whom undisputedly, since the Millennium of Poland’s Baptism, was the Primate Stefan Wyszyński.
Poles and Jews
It is also important to take a look at the often promoted thesis – that the March revolt revealed a high level of anti-Semitism in Poland. This is unjust and far from the truth. As a result of the post March ’68 repressions, nearly 15,000 Jews or people of Jewish origin emigrated from Poland in 1968 and 1969. Among them there were, between others, about 500 academic faculty, about 1,000 students, as well as journalists, filmmakers, writers and actors. Also, among them there were former security and military information officers, including those responsible for Stalinist crimes (at least 200 people). But it was not the public, not the students at the rallies or participants of demonstrations who threw these people out of Poland or demanded that they were removed from work, even though some of the expelled people were Communist officers who in the past eagerly prosecuted Poles. It was done by their Communist comrades, colleagues, and often neighbors from their place of residence and work. Racist arguments were often used during internal struggles for power within the Communist apparatus. This was a perennial attribute of the history of the Communist movement, which is clearly demonstrated by recalling the last years before Stalin’s death.
However, this had nothing to do with popular social behavior, which, let’s restate, was not only student and intellectual, but it also rejected the Communists’ attempts to unleash anti-Semitism. In my experience, but also commonly available facts in the form of relations of strikers, demonstrators, and readers of leaflets are clear – the Communist anti-Semitism greatly contributed to the growth of sympathy and solidarity with attacked Jews and Poles of Jewish origin who felt forced to leave Poland. The popular outcry on Polish streets during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, the so-called Six-Day War was: “Ours are beating Arabs”. And since 1945 Polish-Jewish solidarity has never been stronger.
I will always remember our discussions and joint activities with Julek B., who, five years after leaving Poland, sent me a greeting card from Tel-Aviv that said: “I am lying down on a beach on the Mediterranean, looking at the blue sky over Israel and feeling that I am home.”
Have the courage to defend the truth
The Catholic Church unambiguously supported the March movement, while staying away from fractional games within the Communist party. In matters of national and moral importance, the Primate’s voice was unequivocal when he spoke in the “Bishops’ Word” published on March 21, 1968: “The use of physical violence does not lead to real solutions to tensions between people and between social groups. Brutal use of force depresses human dignity – and instead of serving to maintain peace, it only exacerbates painful wounds.” Even more emphatically, Primate Stefan Wyszynski expressed his position on April 11, 1968 in a homily delivered in the Warsaw Arch cathedral: “… we are still witnessing on Polish soil ordeals and spectacles, such as those on the Krakowskie Przedmiescie street, so painful that I feel excruciating pain just looking at it all. […] Things are happening that do not possibly fit in my head! […] I, bishop of the capital, painfully endure all ‘spectacles of hatred’ – which I could not call anything else. What else I can do? I think I can only remind you, my dear children, that you should save your own hearts, thoughts and feelings from hatred and lies, while having the courage to defend your right to truth, love, mutual respect and justice, to Christ’s unity and God’s peace – in your family, nation and state. Only this will save us.”
The road to independence
Only the above perspective enables us to understand the real trajectory of the course of events towards independence in Poland in the second half of the twentieth century. March ’68 was an important juncture in this process, but its real strength came not from the factional struggles within the Communist apparatus, and not from a group of communist revisionists and their manifestos on ‘the power of workers’ councils”, but from the great historical and spiritual tradition of the Polish nation, from the struggle of the Home Army and Doomed Soldiers, and from the long-term strategy of the Primate of Poland. The most characteristic feature of March `68 was not a political program or organizational plan, nor was it a purge in the Communist party (PZPR) apparatus, faction games and, once again, not the anti-Semitism of the Communist movement.
The most important feature was the extraordinary massive and open character, and the generational shape of the protests.
The most important feature was the extraordinary massive and open character, and the generational shape of the protests. There were hundreds of thousands of young people successfully fighting on the streets of Polish cities with the Soviet controlled police (MO), tens of thousands of students attending meetings at the university campuses along with their professors and assistants, and demanding freedom of speech, democracy and independence, all of which was an unprecedented phenomenon in the communist state, and previously unimaginable in Poland since WWII. This entirely new situation was the result of long-lasting and deliberate work of the Catholic Church under the leadership of Primate Wyszyński based on the concept of a popular and mass Church rooted in spirituality and national patriotic traditions. This was the genesis of the Great Novena of the Millennium, which resulted in an extraordinary spiritual, organizational and political victory, the celebration of the Millennium of the Baptism of Poland. Two years before the March demonstrations and rallies, millions of pilgrims walked throughout Poland heading, under Catholic and national banners, to Częstochowa, Poznań, Gniezno, Kraków, Wrocław and Warsaw, recalling in their songs and prayers the memory of great events in the history of the Polish nation.
It was then that, for the first time since the beginning of the Soviet occupation, the Poles had appreciated their value, identity and strength, were able to count themselves and meet, and started to feel that they could become the hosts in their own country. Watching these events the communists trembled with horror and experienced a sense of civilizational alienation. It was the experience of the 1966 celebrations that made possible the demonstrations, rallies and victories of March ’68. It was during the millennium pilgrimages, sermons and chants of “God Save Poland” that a program of rebuilding the nation and the state, visible in March 1968 and carried through by the organizers of help for prosecuted workers in 1976, and creators of Solidarity trade union in 1980, was born.
1) in Polish the word “Katyn” comes first
Antoni Macierewicz (Polish pronunciation: [anˈtɔɲi mat͡ɕɛˈrɛvit͡ʂ]; born August 3, 1948) is the former Minister of National Defence for Poland. He previously served as the Minister of Internal Affairs, Head of the Military Counterintelligence Service, and Minister of State in the Ministry of National Defence. An academic, historian, and human rights activist, Macierewicz was one of the leaders of the anti-communist resistance in Poland.
Employing nonviolent civil disobedience, Macierewicz was one of the founders in 1976 of the Workers’ Defense Committee, a major anti-communist opposition organization that was a forerunner of Solidarity. During the 1980s Macierewicz directed the Centre for Social Research of Solidarity and was one of the trade union’s key advisors. A former political prisoner, he escaped from incarceration and was in hiding until 1984, directing work and issuing underground publications.